Digestion and fermented foods

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“For the general person of good health – looking to get healthier – fermented foods are highly recommended.”

Amy Florian is a Naturopathic Doctor (ND) who specializes in food and dietary issues.

Much research has indicated that our immune and mental health are partly governed by the state of our gut and digestive tract. Florian says fermented foods are an easy addition to a healthy diet.

“Someone suffering from an acute gastrointestinal illness, the flu or food poisoning, a round of antibiotics, or a bout with diarrhea – we always recommend they eat fermented foods. They restore the positive bacterium and give your body a bit of a break – your body doesn’t have to work as hard to digest your food to absorb the nutrients.”

There are times when the act of digestion can actually be draining for the body. Fermented foods, in essence, are already partially digested due to their bacterium content.

“With sauerkraut, the bacteria are already present on the cabbage leaves. In this case, the bacteria have begun the process of digesting the food a bit. So, we often say that fermented foods are easy on digestion. First of all because they contain positive bacteria, and second, because they are kind of already pre-eaten for us.”

This convenient quirk of nature is of great benefit to someone looking to shake a persistent bug. Florian explains the bacteria basics.

“Fermented foods have been allowed to have bacteria grow on them. When we think of bacteria, we often think of bad bacteria, but if a food has been left to sit in a favorable condition – then a good bacterium can grow on it. Fermented foods are foods that contain good bacteria, or probiotics.  These probiotics may be introduced [applied] to the food, or they may have developed from contact with the air.”

A classic example of this is sourdough bread. The sourdough sits on the counter while bacteria from the air penetrates the dough. This allows a bacterial culture to form.

“A probiotic is a bacterium that has beneficial properties for your body. They mainly live in our digestive tract, but can be present in other parts of the body – such as the vagina, urethra, mouth, intestine.”

Florian says probiotics are a good bacterium and one of their positive influences are that they help digestion – she notes we have trillions of bacteria in our digestive tract.

“We are always being exposed to bad bacteria – viruses, fungus, parasites – just a normal consequence of eating, breathing and drinking water. This good bacterium in our gut keeps us protected.”

She says probiotics influence our immune system – the majority of our immune system is housed in our intestinal tract. Having amounts of good bacteria helps balance our gut flora and support the immune system at the same time.

In addition to sauerkraut and sourdough bread, other examples of fermented foods include: kombucha, kefir, Natto, cheese, yogurt, Miso and Kimchi.

Florian says when introducing fermented foods to one’s diet, some may notice changes in digestion.

“Some might experience diarrhea, or gurgling in the stomach – this should only last a couple of days. This a reaction to the changes taking place in the flora of your gut. Something to be aware of and know that it will pass.”

She makes a note for anyone who is immune-compromised, undergoing chemotherapy, radiation, or is palliative.

“One thing to be aware of when taking probiotics – while experiencing these conditions – is the immune system might be too weakened. Even though it’s good bacteria it’s still bacteria. It’s not recommended that people with severely compromised immune systems overdo it with fermented foods.”

As with any aspect of lifestyle, moderation key.

“More is not necessarily better. I have had some patients overdo it and that can be problematic. Either taking way too many capsules of probiotics, or having bowlfuls of sauerkraut, plus yogurt, plus drinking litres of kombucha. This can disrupt the balance of good and bad bacteria in the body – we need a happy medium.”