If you’re looking for easy ways to add more oomph to your healthy diet, try eating more bacteria (yes, really!). Fermentation is a food processing method that uses live microorganisms like bacteria and yeast to convert sugars and starches into byproducts like acid, alcohol, and carbon dioxide. It’s one of the oldest tried-and-true methods for preserving foods long after their shelf life is over, and is responsible for some of our dietary staples like bread, cheese, and beer. But it’s also been enjoying a ton of publicity in the past couple of years because, as it turns out, adding certain fermented foods also comes with a heap of beneficial bacteria and other nutrients that positively impact your gut health!

Here are all the tasty benefits you can reap by adding fermented foods to your diet, and how often you should be eating them for the best results.

Table of fermented foods included kimchi, pickles, and soups.

4 benefits of fermented foods

They give you a boost of probiotics

Let’s start with the big one: many types of fermented foods are a great source of probiotics!

Your body is home to trillions of microbes like bacteria, fungi, and yeasts. Collectively, this is called your ”gut microbiome.” Your digestive tract in particular (and especially your large intestine) houses a huge variety of tiny microscopic species, which help you digest food, protect your gut barrier, and produce byproducts that go on to play roles in multiple systems throughout your entire body.

The species of bacteria in your gut microbiome are dependent on a variety of factors --- including, unsurprisingly, your diet. While certain bacterial species are beneficial for you, like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species, there are also harmful bacteria that can populate your gut and lead to issues like inflammation.

So probiotics are “good bacteria” that you can get from your diet which survive the digestion process and eventually take up residence in your gut. This also leaves less room for the “bad” bacteria to take up space. Because many fermented foods are produced using live bacteria, yeasts, and other microorganisms, they can introduce beneficial microbe species into your system and improve your gut microbiome.

They support heart health

Certain kinds of probiotic bacteria that are found in fermented foods are really good for your heart. For example, the consumption of fermented milk products has been linked to lowered LDL levels. LDL is the “bad” type of cholesterol that can clog up your arteries and promote inflammation, increasing your risk of developing high blood pressure and heart disease.

They contribute to improved immunity

Did you know that a huge portion of your immune system, the defense system your body has to protect you against disease and infection, starts right in your gut? One of the biggest roles that your gut microbiome plays is as a regulator of your immune system. A 2021 study by researchers at the Stanford University of Medicine found that subjects who ate a diet high in fermented foods (yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, and kefir in particular) showed both a steady increase in microbiome diversity and a subsequent decrease in markers of inflammatory activity.

They’re easily digestible

Vegetables that are commonly fermented, like cabbage, are already full of nutrients, but you can take it one step further if you’re eating them fermented. Because fermentation breaks down nutrients (similar to what would be happening inside of your own digestive tract with your resident gut microbes) you might actually find that fermentation increases their bioavailability, aka the amount of the nutrient your body can actually absorb and use. The fermentation process has been found to increase the bioavailability of nutrients like Vitamin C, plant proteins, and minerals like magnesium and iron. Some of the microbes found in fermented foods can also degrade “anti-nutrients” that inhibit your absorption of nutrients, boosting the nutrition benefits even further.

How often should you eat fermented foods?

Your nutritional needs and gut health are personalized to you, so there isn’t an official consensus on how many fermented foods people should eat. However, nutritionists generally agree that eating fermented foods at least once a day can be beneficial for your gut. This is supported by the Stanford University Of Medicine study mentioned earlier (in that study, participants who ate fermented foods and saw reduced inflammatory markers ate about six servings per day for ten weeks).

How can you prevent gas and bloating from eating fermented foods?

It’s true that some people might experience side effects like bloating and gas from fermented foods if they aren’t used to them, so you might need to introduce them slowly if they aren’t already a regular part of your diet. It’s also important to note that just because a food is fermented doesn’t necessarily mean that it contains live cultures of probiotics. Processes like heating, canning, and pasteurization are used to kill bacteria and make food safe for consumption, but this also means that they can kill off live cultures. If you’re wanting to increase your probiotic consumption via fermented foods, you’re better off sticking to freshly-made fermented foods or looking out for whether they’re specified to contain live cultures on the label.

Fermented foods we love

  • Sauerkraut: This fermented cabbage dish is a great source of bacteria that produce lactic acid, which helps maintain your gut microbiome. In addition, sauerkraut is also a good source of Vitamins E and C for extra anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

  • Kimchi: Kimchi can be thought of as sauerkraut’s spicier Korean cousin. It’s made from the fermentation of Chinese cabbage.

  • Greek yogurt: Yogurt is an excellent source of probiotics like Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria species One study found that eating a high dose of Greek yogurt (250 g, to be exact) every day resulted in gut microbiome community changes in study participants. Because the lactose in yogurt is broken down into simpler sugars from fermentation, yogurt might also be a good way for people with lactose intolerance to reap the health benefits of dairy without messing with their stomachs.

  • Kombucha: If you’re looking for a gentler alternative to your midday coffee that comes with those benefits of fermentation, consider kombucha. This drink is made by introducing a “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeasts” (commonly referred to as “SCOBY”) to tea.

How to optimize your gut health even further with Base

When dealing with gut issues, our first instinct is usually to change what we’re eating to correct them. But if you don’t pinpoint exactly what is going on with your gut and your hormones, it’s a lot more difficult to determine what to do to correct the core issues and ultimately heal your gut.

Your gut health is dependent on a wide range of factors besides just your gut bacteria, but the results might be general enough that you can’t figure out what’s going on by your symptoms alone. For example:

  • An imbalance between estrogen and progesterone levels is sometimes linked to bloating

  • Thyroid hormones partly dictate your metabolism, and levels that are too high or too low can lead to unexpected weight changes

  • High levels of cortisol, your “stress hormone,” has been linked to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)\ Every single body is different, which means that a personalized approach to nutrition is critical for addressing issues in your gut and beyond. This can start with taking a blood test like Base’s Diet Testing Plan. Measuring critical biomarkers like your vitamin levels and your balance of metabolism-regulating hormones like cortisol, thyroid hormones, and sex hormones with a blood test can give you invaluable insights into where your gut issues are stemming. And the best news about that: the more you know about your biomarkers, the better informed you’ll be to make relevant nutrition and lifestyle changes and find a better balance for your gut at last.

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