Benefits of Fermented Foods

Photo by Monika Grabkowska 

In the 21st century, with the refocusing on health and superfoods, ferments have transitioned from an artisanal oddity to a somewhat mainstream product. It's more common to see raw sauerkraut, kombucha , beet kvass and raw cheeses even in big box stores like Costco, Walmart, and Kroger.

I grew up in Eastern Europe in the eighties and nineties, and fermentation was still one of the popular ways to preserve food, along with canning and curing (mostly meat). I grew up helping my parents make sauerkraut and wine. My grandparents and great grandparents also made fermented vegetables, pickles, and sourdough bread. Unfortunately, with the convenience of modern foods and the popularity of refrigeration, the art of preparing these foods has been lost to our generation.

What is fermentation?As defined by Sandor Ellix Katz in his wonderful book "The Art of Fermentation" : 
...fermentation is the transformation of food by various bacteria,fungi, and the enzymes they produce. People harness this transformative power in order to produce alcohol, to preserve food, and to make it more digestible, less toxic, and/or more delicious. ....
Sounds amazing already. It seems like the benefits of fermented foods are predetermined by it's definition. But let's take a closer look.

Photo by Alexander Maasch

Fermentation is a very safe way to preserve food. By-products of fermentation -  such as alcohol, lactic acid, acetic acid, and carbon dioxide - help maintain an environment which inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria and supports food preservation.

Fermentation increases bioavailability of nutrients. Bacteria pre-digests food , thus releasing additional nutrients and/or removing anti-nutrients and toxins.
...In the process of pre-digestion, many ferments accumulate increased levels of B vitamins, including thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), and niacin ( B3), as compared with raw ingredient prior to fermentation....

 People who have food sensitivities often respond well to fermented versions of the same foods they are sensitive to. For example, I am never able to drink plain milk or even put cream in my coffee, but i do well with aged raw cheeses and homemade plain yogurt. The process of fermentation makes these foods low in lactose and starts an enzymatic process which further helps with digestion when they are consumed. 

 Fermented foods are live foods. They play an important role in gut health and our overall immunity. There was some debate recently about the fact that taking probiotics or eating probiotic rich foods (like ferments) might not permanently populate our guts with beneficial bacteria, as previously thought. Even if this is true, the benefits of eating live, fermented foods are still recognized. Live bacteria present in these foods not only helps us digest better, but also produce compounds in our intestines, which inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria and allow "good" bacteria to proliferate, thus increasing our gut microbial ecology .

Photo by Klara Avsenik

  Fermented foods can have an alkalizing effect on our bodies. This is mostly true for plant food ferments like sauerkraut, cultured veggies, raw apple cider vinegar, kombucha, kvass, kimchi, etc. The process of fermentation releases minerals (which are alkalizing for the body) and makes them more bioavailable. 

Research shows that fermented, live foods can be beneficial for multiple gut related diseases, such as IBS, diarrhea, IBD, and others. A well established gut flora is shown to help with many autoimmune and mental health problems, as well as in lessening the severity and duration of the common cold and flu. 

Fermented food have shown to have a positive effect in detoxing our bodies, especially from substances like pesticides, toxins naturally occurring in the raw foods, and even mercury . In traditional societies, foods like fatty fish and certain roots ( like taro,which is toxic) were often fermented before consuming.

Fermented foods are a staple in our house and I believe that consuming them is one of the easiest ways to help our immune systems and our whole bodies thrive. A healthy bacterial environment in our guts can translate to proper digestion and food assimilation, good oral health, good vaginal health and a positive mental attitude.
 Of course, fermentation is not panacea and it is only one (very important) factor of self care. If you are new to fermented foods, you might want to take it slow and add one type, and a few tablespoons at a time. This way you can figure out what you like best, and what might not work for your body( especially if you have any severe food allergies).

 If you wonder, where to start, here is a few examples of the staple ferments in our household:

  • Raw Apple Cider Vinegar (with the mother) - use it in salad dressing, to make mineral rich broths, and as a condiment ( I make infused vinegar, which we add to soups).
  • Sauerkraut - We loooove sauerkraut!My husband adds it to almost every meal he eats and we often use the juice on our salads instead of dressing. It is great to add as a condiment to heavier dishes, as it helps with digestion.
  • Kombucha  - I make kombucha with green tea, rather than black , and I like to double ferment it with some fruit juice to produce different flavors. We enjoy it with meals, instead of soda or plain juice. I also like to drink ginger kombucha when I feel like I have a stomach bug or any indigestion.
  • Sourdough Bread - I love freshly baked,fragrant,crusty bread! Sourdough bread is low in gluten and it is very easily digestible. People with gluten intolerance can often consume sourdough bread made with ancient grains like spelt or einkorn. 
  • Yogurt - I think yogurt should be homemade. I have not found many brands of yogurt which don't have thickeners or sugar added to their products. I like to make my own yogurt and I try to purchase raw milk or the closest to it (which is non-homogenized, low temperature,pressure pasteurized milk) available. We eat yogurt for breakfast, snack, or as a base for cold summer soups and sauces.
I hope you will be inspired to experiment in the kitchen and enjoy the enormous benefits these traditional foods can bring. Share your experience with us. I am always happy to learn 😃😃😃

5 Tips To Keep Your Immune System Healthy

"Food is medicine."
"You are what you eat."
"Pay the farmer now, or the doctor later."

Have you heard any of those? And many more, I bet. 

These sayings ring true even more today, when we are in the midst of a world pandemic, and the concern for ourselves and our loved ones has grown way beyond the ordinary. 

So, today, I have decided to share five practices my family has to keep our immune systems healthy year round. 

Remember, prevention is key. The steps outlined here work for us and are something we have accepted as part of everyday life. Keeping a strong immune system is necessary not only during cold/flu season, or in times of nationwide health crisis. 

1. Eat More Greens

I always say that you should eat the rainbow. And NO, I don't mean a bag of Skittles. Every different color fruit and vegetable you eat , gives your body a variety of antioxidant and phytonutrients which help keep you healthy and happy. 

Greens seems to be a nutrient powerhouse with an incredible ability to heal our bodies on cellular level. The chlorophyll, which gives greens their distinctive color, seems to be the perfect match for the human body. Hemoglobin in our blood has the same structure as chlorophyll (plant "blood") . The difference is that hemoglobin is built around Iron and chlorophyll is built around Magnesium.

I am going to get all scientific on you for a moment and show you a chart:

I find this fascinating and a reminder that we are evolved as part of this world. That is why food is your best medicine. Greens are a powerful antioxidant and are full of vitamins and minerals, easily absorbed by our own cells. 

Do you get enough greens in your day? I'm afraid , a side salad is not enough. Nevertheless, don't fret. There are many ways to get your daily greens in and not have to eat a salad at every meal and snack. 

I have two favorite ways of getting my share of dark leafy greens in my body.
I love green smoothies and that is my first favorite method of supplying my body with all the healing plants it needs. I like to follow Dr. Brooke Goldner's method of preparing a hyper- nourishing smoothies. ( Check out a great video HERE).

My second favorite method is using green powders which you just dissolve in water and drink as part of your Vitamin/Mineral regiment. I've been using the brand Amazing Grass for years and I love that they have a variety of blends and flavors, tailored to my needs (even to-go packets and tablets). Green powders provide a concentrated source of greens with all their benefits and I like to use them when I am on the go and can't get to my blender at home.

2. Healthy Gut , Healthy Body

Research in recent years has proved the importance of a healthy microbiome for our overall health. Our microbiome is comprised of bacteria and other microorganisms which are responsible for digesting our food, producing hormones, transforming the "raw" material of our food into vitamins and minerals, and a great variety of other functions. They are part of our immune system and a good balance of beneficial bacteria is the first step in healing the body. 

The easiest way to supply your body with a variety of beneficial bacteria is through your food. Traditionally fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, fermented vegetables,nato,plain whole milk yogurt, etc. are the best source for live probiotics. 

Fermented foods are very easy to make at home and are now available in some health food stores. The process of fermentation pre-digests the food and increases the amount of bio-available vitamin C. For example, sauerkraut has ten times the amount of vitamin C that cabbage contains.

Make sure your diet includes high fiber foods like beans and green leafy vegetables, in order to be able to feed the beneficial bacteria that is already in your gut and to allow them to proliferate ( it's a good thing).

If you do not have access to fermented foods , you can use a good quality probiotic supplement. Make sure you purchase it at the refrigerated section of your health food store  ( or grocery store) and keep it in the fridge at home. I like brands, which contain not only probiotics but a variety of soil organisms, which we used to acquire through foods grown in healthy soil and which are unfortunately missing even from  the organic produce grown today.

3. Play Outside

Spending time outside is very important during this time of social isolation and during any illness that you might experience. Go for a walk, play with your kids, bike, hike, run around the block, or simply sit on your patio. Do anything your body and your location allows you, as long as you spend at least 30 minutes a day outside in the fresh air. 

Being out in nature  (including parks, back yards, and even the tiniest patch of green you can find) has long been proven to increase mood, relieve stress and improve mental health.

Also, being outside is the best way to make sure your body gets a sufficient amount of Vitamin D.Vitamin D is essential for proper immune function. Once absorbed by your skin and processed by your liver and kidneys, vitamin D acts as a hormone that regulates calcium metabolism. It also plays and essential role in heart and lung function. 

I live in a state that has over 300 days of sunshine a year. If you are worried that you might not get enough sunshine where you live, don't fret. You don't need to be exposed to direct sunlight for your body to produce vitamin D. You need to be exposed to UVB rays, not UVA rays, in order to trigger the process in your body. 

4. Take immune boosting supplements

I am usually not one to recommend taking a lot of supplements, herbal or not, but there is a few things I consider necessary during cold/flu season. 

My family and I use supplements which are safe for long term daily use and are often viewed by our bodies as food rather than a chemical component. 

Every fall I make a batch of Elderberry, Echinacea and Rose Hip Tincture  which we take on a daily basis and a batch of Fire Cider, which you can take on it's own , or add to soups, broths and salad dressings.

I like taking Fermented Cod Liver Oil daily, just to make sure I get enough vitamin A . I know there was some controversy regarding brands of FCLO and it's freshness, but I've been taking it for awhile with positive results. Listen to your body. Supplements , even when prescribed by a doctor or another practitioner, might not be right for you. 

One of the safest way to reduce inflammation in your body and strengthen your immune system is not really a supplement, but I like to consider it a very important part of our health regiment. I am talking about the use of herbal teas. My son and my husband like to start the day with a mix of green and herbal teas, and I like to have a cup of Ginger/Turmeric tea at night , before going to bed. Add some local raw honey and some lemon. You will be surprised how much better your body responds to this , rather than an extraction in pill form. 

5. Less screen time, more sleep

Do you go to sleep watching TV or looking at your phone/tablet?

As modern humans, we have come to depend on technology and electricity in our homes and it's hard to deny how amazing progress can be.. But, is it really good for our health? The answer to that question seems to have as many answers as the number of people you ask but science and research seem to prove over and over again that disturbance of the natural circadian rhythm of our bodies has a harmful effect on our ability to heal and prevent disease.

Lack of sleep impairs the function of our brains as much as drinking alcohol does.  It also lowers the immune response of our bodies by affecting the function of T-cells, which are essential for destroying pathogens in our bodies.

(If you feel like geeking out on the subject, check out this article in the Journal of Experimental Medicine 😊)

Please, know that this information is for educational purposes only. If you are experiencing any acute symptoms, like fever, coughing, difficulty breathing, or have an active autoimmune disease, you must consult with a health care practitioner before taking any supplements. 

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