Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, famously said, “Let food be thy medicine.” Since ancient times, people have eaten exotic things to alter the state of body and mind. Whether they wanted to heal sickness, grow a stronger body, or celebrate, every band of people had their own local flora to choose from. One thing all of the healthiest included in their diets were fermented foods.
Modern science is now rapidly exploring the idea that the way our body processes what we put into our digestive system is much more complex than the simple (calories in :: calories out) idea most of us grew up with. The Digestive Microbiome — the bacteria that help us digest our food and drink, living in our stomach, colon, and intestines — manages how our body takes the raw materials we put in and refines them to repair and regenerate our structure.
These helper bacteria that work alongside our body’s built-in systems are crucial to the process. Having certain bacteria means you can easily digest lactose, a sugar found in milk, while some people have so much difficulty processing it that they have to cut out dairy entirely. It’s theorized the same thing exists for wheat, meat, shellfish, alcohol, and other common food allergies. It sounds like Hippocrates was on to something.
Although we’re given a combination of gut bacteria from our parents when we’re born, that doesn’t mean we’re stuck with what we’ve got. A recent Harvard University study (1) shows what we eat affects which stomach bacteria are more active. What your high school French prof told you was correct - if you don’t use it, you lose it. The study shows that the diversity of gut bacteria can change in just 24 hours, the body preparing to adapt quickly to a change in fuel. That means you can change what bacteria are working for you in that time, too. Since consuming meat and dairy attracts worker-bacteria that tend to cause inflammation in humans, changing your diet to plant-based foods can reduce swelling in your body. Good news for any of you who are trying to fit into that dress or skinny jeans from before your holiday vacation.
Fermented foods have been popular for a long time for a few specific reasons:
1) they’re high in probiotics, helpful gut bacteria that streamline our digestive process
2) they’re partially digested (a little gross to think about), making them easier for our body to break down
3) the fermentation process introduces lactic acid to partially break down the food - lactic acid kills all other major bacteria (2).
Looking to give fermented foods a try? Check out our quick brief below on a bunch of common ones. They’re probably available in your local grocery store, or easy enough to make at home. Do some research before you whip them up yourself; there are plenty of great how-tos floating around the internet.
(1) NPR: Chowing down on Meat, Dairy Alters Gut Bacteria A Lot, And Quickly
(2) SFGate - Cultivating Their Fascination with Fermentation
Fermentation Around the World
Sauerkraut - fermented cabbage, brought to Europe by Genghis Khan
Kimchi - pickled, spicy cabbage from the Korean tradition.
Natto - fermented soybeans; a Japanese favorite, especially to see if tourists make funny faces while eating it.
Miso - fermented rice and barley mix, famous as a soup from Japan.
Yogurt - fermented milk; it appears in historical reports from all over the ancient world. Most likely first created in India or Asia.
Kombucha - fermented tea, originally from East Asia. Slightly alcoholic.
Wine - fermented grapes, probably first coming from the areas of Mesopotamia, Israel, and Egypt.
Beer - fermented grains or hops.
Pickles - originally fermented cucumbers, but recently tend to be made with vinegar instead of a lactic acid solution.
Written by Corey Loftus
Founder / Visionary : constantly quotable
Corey is a voiceover artist, yogi, and father to a fur-child named Eddy.
He'll work for almond butter.