Simple foods to incorporate into your daily routine that can have a dramatic impact on health and disease.
Probiotics have been getting a lot of attention these days and there is a good reason for this. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that we ingest to support our microbiome. The human microbiome is the diverse collection of microbes that live symbiotically within our bodies. We have known about these microbes for some time but they have become the focus of much recent research and many exciting and emerging theories about health and disease. It is now clear that the human microbiome plays a very significant role in many aspects of health and disease and probiotic consumption is the key to maintaining this inner eco-system.
I have talked about the microbiome and what disrupts it in a previous post (click for a link) but to recap; it is mostly compromised by our modern diet and lifestyle- stress, diets high in sugar and processed foods, antibiotic exposure and a lack of foods that replenish and feed the healthy microbes.
There are many symptoms and disease states that are starting to be linked to a disrupted microbiome including anxiety, depression, constipation, IBS, Crohn's Disease, ulcerative colitis, autoimmune diseases, PCOS, allergies, eczema, acne, psoriasis, diabetes etc...
The research about these microbes may be new but cultures around the world have intuitively been nourishing the human microbiome through diet for a very long time.
Probiotic and prebiotic supplements are one way this can be done but the most effective way of supporting this important eco-system is through consistently incorporating probiotic and prebiotic foods into our daily diets.
These delicious healing foods are actually pretty simple and easy to come by…
Foods that contain the helpful microbes that we want to replenish on an ongoing basis.
Foods that feed the health promoting microbes and keep the population thriving.
For optimum health we want to ensure that we incorporates both categories on a regular basis. By regular I mean daily or at the very least weekly.
This is a dish made with fermented cabbage and salt. It is common in Eastern Europe but is thought to have originated in China thousands of years ago.
Sauerkraut has the health benefits of both cabbage and fermented foods. Cabbage is high in vitamins B1, B6 B9 K and C and the minerals calcium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, phosphorus and iron. It is a member of the cruciferous family of vegetables containing a high amount of indole-3-carbinole that have been shown to be supportive of healthy liver function, promote hormone balance and help in prevention of certain cancers. The lactic acid producing bacteria that are present due to the fermentation process are key players in the microbiome helping to fight harmful parasites, yeasts and bacteria, healing the gut lining, helping to release certain vitamins and minerals from foods, promoting regularity, supporting a healthy immune function and decreasing inflammation.
The bacteria needed for fermenting sauerkraut is naturally present on the cabbage so all that is needed is salt and the proper conditions. It is easy to make yourself but if this isn’t possible its best to buy ones that contain only cabbage and salt. Commercial varieties that contain vinegar and other additives will not have the same health benefits.
This is a Korean dish made from fermented cabbage, carrots, onions and garlic, ginger and chilies, giving it a sour and spicy flavor.
Like Sauerkraut, kimchi is primarily fermented by lactic acid producing species. It includes vitamins such as vitamin A, vitamin B1, vitamin B2 and vitamin C. Kimchi is also rich in essential amino acids and minerals such as iron, calcium and selenium. Kimchi has an impressive assortment of powerful antioxidants. It has been shown to promote regular digestion, regulate cholesterol, reduce eczema, regulate weight and support healthy immunity.
Again it is fairly straightforward to make this at home but if you choose to purchase it there are several varieties available in most health food stores, Korean markets and some farmer’s markets.
Kefir is a cultured-milk beverage, which originated in the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, believed to date back at least 1,000 years. The inhabitants of this region consumed the beverage in large quantities and were renowned for their longevity.
Kefir is similar to yoghurt with a thinner consistency and a slightly effervescent quality. It can be made from the milk of any ruminant including cows, goats and sheep.
The various types of beneficial microbiota contained in Kefir make it one of the most potent probiotic foods available. Kefir contains high levels of thiamin, B12, calcium, folate and Vitamin K2. It is a good source of biotin, a B vitamin that helps the body assimilate other B vitamins. It is a great source of calcium and magnesium, as well as phosphorus, which helps the body utilize carbohydrates, fats and proteins for cell growth, maintenance and energy. The K2 in kefir is a nutrient that is lacking in many diets but is essential for proper calcium use in the body.
Kefir contains a potent blend of probiotics that have been shown to help regulate digestion, protect against gastrointestinal diseases, reduce infection and inflammation, reduce allergy help protect against cancer.
It is pretty easy to make on your own. You just have to acquire some started grains (no relation to any grain that’s just what the kefir culture is called) and milk. It is best to use organic, grass fed dairy if possible. You can often find good varieties in the grocery or health food store.
Besides cabbage there are many other vegetables that can be fermented including carrots, turnips, cucumbers, ginger and garlic etc. with the lactic acid producing bacteria naturally present on the surface of many vegetables and fruits.
As with sauerkraut and kimchi the benefits of these will come from the nutrients contained in each vegetable or fruit combined with all of the health benefits of the lactic acid producing bacteria mentioned above.
Many lacto-fermented veggies can be purchased at the health food store, farmers market or specialty food stores. If you plan to try it yourself it is best to consult a good book to ensure you follow safe and sanitary methods.
Other fermented foods include yoghurt, kombucha, water kefir, coconut kefir, beet kvass and many others from around the world.
With all this talk of probiotics we need to remember that once we introduce these into our bodies we need to nourish and keep them alive. That is where prebiotic foods come in.
The two most studied prebiotics are inulin and arabinogalactans.
Some common inulin containing foods:
Asparagus, garlic, onion, Jerusalem artichoke and jicama
Some common arabinogalactan containing foods:
Carrots, onions, radishes, tomatoes, turmeric, pears, kiwi and the bark of the larch tree
Like probiotics these can also be found in supplement form but incorporating them into the daily diet is a more effective, consistent, enjoyable and affordable way to do it.
With any prebiotic and probiotic food it is wise to start out slow. Adding new microbes or feeding existing ones can cause a bit of gas and bloating as your body adjusts. As always I recommend working with a health practitioner (naturopath, nutritionist, dietician, MD etc.) that you trust so that you can tailor any dietary changes to your specific health needs. And if you plan to try making them at home it is important to research proper and sanitary techniques or to purchase them from a reputable and trusted resource as improper fermentation can cause sickness. By smartly introducing these foods into your diet you can begin to enjoy the time-tested benefits that these foods have on balancing your body’s microbial eco-system and promoting optimal health.
Kellman, Raphael. The Microbiome Diet, Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2014.
· Park KY1, Jeong JK, Lee YE, Daily JW 3rd. Health benefits of kimchi (Korean fermented vegetables) as a probiotic food. J Med Food. 2014 Jan;17(1):6-20. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2013.3083.
I am a naturopathic doctor practicing in Toronto, Ontario. I practice evidence-based natural medicine with a focus on ancestral nutrition. I have a special interest in digestive, endocrine and mental health.