The One Gut-Healing Drink This Doctor Is Having Every Day This Year
When I mention fermented foods, you might think of the sauerkraut your German grandparents served with sausage or the pungent kimchi you once sampled at a Korean restaurant. Likewise, small amounts of fermented miso, tempeh, tofu, and soy sauce are staples among the traditional Asian diet. Fermentation makes foods easier to digest. And the partial breakdown of lactose sugar during fermentation makes certain dairy products like yogurt or kefir easier on the digestive system. While fermented foods have become trendy recently, eclipsing kale and even avocado to land the spot of No. 1 superfood in America, many people don't know how extensive the category actually is. Literally thousands of foods and drinks can be fermented.
One of my favorites is fermented vegetables, which make an easy addition to meals and snacks. Every day, I try to eat one serving of fermented vegetables including sauerkraut, olives, pickles, and kimchi. Fermenting puts a food through a process called lacto fermentation, which (contrary to its name) has nothing to do with the lactose in milk. During that fermentation process, natural bacteria or yeasts feed on that food's sugar and starch.
People didn't always know about the benefits of fermented foods, which go back about 9,000 years. Instead, our ancestors used fermentation for more practical reasons: to preserve foods, keep those foods fresh longer, and improve flavor. Many of these production methods occurred by chance, and cultural traditions passed them down to subsequent generations. Along the way, humans discovered that, oh wow, fermentation also provides many health benefits. During fermentation, bacteria synthesize vitamins and minerals, producing biologically active peptides with enzymes while eliminating some non-nutrients. They essentially help make nutrients more bioavailable for our bodies to utilize efficiently.
These biologically active peptides in fermented foods provide many health benefits, including:
- Conjugated linoleic acids (CLA), which can lower your blood pressure
- Exopolysaccharides, which behave as prebiotics to feed your good gut bugs
- Bacteriocins with antimicrobial effects
- Sphingolipids with anticarcinogenic and antimicrobial benefits
The live microorganisms in fermented foods provide healthy bacteria for your gut. When you eat them, they help support and optimize your good gut bugs (or probiotics) and diversify those healthy bugs. That's important because lots of things—including chronic stress, a diet high in processed foods and sugar, and multiple courses of antibiotics throughout your lifetime—can adversely alter your gut flora. When you eat the right foods, including cultured or fermented foods, you restore that balance between favorable and unfavorable microorganisms in the gut. And what affects your gut affects nearly everything in your body.
Fermented foods and drinks also provide many other benefits, including improving markers of mental health. That makes sense, considering that your gut manufactures many mood-regulating neurotransmitters including feel-good serotonin and relaxation-inducing GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid).
One review of 140 studies over a 50-year period had "remarkably consistent" results: Fermented foods deliver large numbers of potentially beneficial gut microorganisms. Those live microorganisms in fermented foods also provide an antioxidant boost and lower inflammation. They can help reduce your risk for certain diseases, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Their antimicrobial and antifungal benefits protect against bad gut bugs and support good gut health.
Fermented foods, in other words, are gut and overall health rock stars. As they become more popular, you'll find more varieties of fermented foods and drinks at health food stores. Caveat emptor: The healthy microorganisms in fermented foods can vary according to how manufacturers process and store them along with their shelf life. Many modern-day commercial vegetables including sauerkraut also incur additional processing methods like pasteurization. Those processes reduce a food's vitamins, fiber, minerals, essential fatty acids, and amino acids. One solution is to look for raw, organic, non-genetically modified (non-GMO) sauerkraut and other fermented foods in health food stores or at your farmers market.
Another idea is to ferment your own vegetables, which isn't as daunting as it might sound. "All you need is a jar, water, salt, some spices or herbs, and a little time," says Mark Hyman, M.D., in Food: What the Heck Should I Eat? When you put vegetables in an oxygen-free environment, the healthy bacteria Lactobacillus converts that vegetable's sugars into lactic acid. Lactic acid preserves vegetables and gives them a tangy flavor. Sauerkraut or pickles make a great introduction, but you can ferment almost any vegetable including broccoli or cauliflower.
If you're a newbie, you might use a starter kit. "But never use vinegar—as food companies tend to do with sauerkraut and other dishes—because it kills the live bacteria, defeating the purpose of fermentation," says Hyman. "When you buy fermented foods, make sure they were prepared naturally, without the use of vinegar."
Fermented vegetables provide a tasty, inexpensive way to get tons of nutrients, meet your veggie quota, and feed the good gut bugs that contribute to vital health and well-being. I encourage you to join me and consume more fermented and cultured foods and drinks, period. But watch out for added sugars in many store-bought brands. Here's an easy way to begin with my Coconut Water Kefir recipe.
Coconut Water Kefir
A healthy prebiotic- and probiotic-rich carbonated beverage great for helping to balance your gut ecosystem.
- 3 tablespoons water kefir grains*
- 4 cups pasteurized coconut water
- 1 cup fresh strawberries or blueberries (optional)
- ½ cup fresh lemon juice (optional)
* Water kefir grains can be found in natural-food stores or online at Amazon. With proper care, the culture can be used indefinitely to create probiotic-rich kefir. Your grains will not grow as quickly in coconut water as they will in a nice bath of nutrient-rich sugar. Refresh and reactivate the kefir grains in sugar water (¼ cup sugar in 4 cups water) for 24 to 48 hours between batches of Coconut Water Kefir. The sugar water will keep the grains healthy for the long term.
- Place the water kefir grains and the coconut water in a jar. Cover the jar loosely with a lid or cheesecloth and allow the kefir grains to culture the coconut water for ideally 24 to 36 (and no longer than 48) hours at room temperature.
- Once the culturing is complete (the mixture will have thickened), remove the kefir grains with a slotted spoon and store in a separate glass container filled with filtered water and a teaspoon of sugar to keep the kefir grains alive and active.
- You may drink the Coconut Water Kefir by itself, but for an added twist, puree the cultured coconut water with the berries and lemon juice in a blender to your desired consistency. The Coconut Water Kefir will last 1 to 3 weeks in the fridge; when blended with the berries and lemon juice, it will last for 2 to 3 days in the fridge. Serve cold.