Kombucha, sauerkraut, kefir, pickles and other fermented foods are touted as a “must have” for a healthy gut and microbiome by almost every functional medicine and natural health expert.
In fact, you can hardly walk through a grocery store or health food store without seeing these products on the shelf with signs proclaiming their benefits for digestive issues, immune health, bowel regularity, and more.
However, there is a downside to fermented foods that you may not know about. The question of how and when to eat fermented foods is actually a hot button issue, and my opinion differs from many functional medicine practitioners.
Let’s talk about why your gut health and microbiome are so important, the risk posed by fermented foods, and alternatives for increasing your levels of beneficial bacteria.
The Importance of Gut Health and Your Microbiome
If you’re familiar with the importance of gut health, you likely know about your gut microbiome – the ecosystem of microorganisms that live in your digestive tract. In recent years, scientist have discovered that the gut microbiome contains tens of trillions of microorganisms, including up to 1,000 different species of bacteria with over 3 million genes — that’s 150 times more genes than human genes!
I like to think of your microbiome as a rainforest, filled with many different species of good bacteria (probiotics), bad bacteria, and yeast, living together in one ecosystem. If the good bacteria reigns supreme, then you have a healthy gut and immune system (since nearly 80% of your immune system lives in your gut).
However, if the balance is disrupted and the bad bacteria or yeast get out of control, you can develop Small Bowel Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) and Candida overgrowth. Both of these conditions can cause leaky gut, lead to a myriad of symptoms, and set you on the path to chronic illness and autoimmunity.
The Role of Fermented Foods in Gut Health
Fermented foods are prepared using the process of lacto-fermentation, in which bacteria, yeast, and other microorganisms break down the sugar and starch in a food, converting it into lactic acid. The lactic acid created during the fermentation process is a natural preservative that inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria (which is why fermented foods “keep” for so long).
Fermented foods are more easily digested, as the nutrients have been broken down into their most digestible form. The process of lacto-fermentation can also add nutritional value to your food because it can produce B vitamins, Omega 3 fatty acids, and digestive enzymes not naturally present in the food before fermentation.
So what exactly is the link between fermented foods and gut health?
The “lacto” portion of the term lacto-fermentation refers to a specific species of bacteria, Lactobacillus. Various strains of these bacteria are present in plants, and are also naturally found in your gut microbiome. In fact, strains of Lactobacillus are often found in probiotic supplements, because of their gut health benefits.
During the fermentation process, these bacterial strains are able to multiply quickly because in addition to producing enzymes and nutrients, the fermentation process produces prebiotics, which feed the probiotics. Because of this, fermented foods are very high in probiotics, as well as prebiotics, which feed your gut’s natural probiotics when you eat them.
For this reason, people dealing with gut health issues, particularly Candida or yeast overgrowth or SIBO, often add fermented foods into their diet as part of their treatment protocol, in order to rebuild their population of probiotics that keep the bad bacteria and yeast in check.
The problem is that this is hardly a clean and neat process
Remember when I said your microbiome is like a rainforest with multiple species living together? Well the fermentation process itself is a case of survival of the fittest, and the players aren’t only the good guys.
In fact, Kombucha, one of the most popular and trendiest fermented foods, is made from a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). That means that not only are good bacteria or probiotics present, bad bacteria and yeast are also present during the fermentation process.
And all of the prebiotics produced during that process t feed not only the good bacteria, they also feed bad bacteria and yeast, meaning fermented foods themselves may be high in bad bacteria and yeast.
In addition, the high concentration of prebiotics found in fermented foods also make their way to your gut, where they feed good bacteria, bad bacteria, and yeast alike. So if you are dealing with SIBO or Candida overgrowth, and already have an overpopulation of bad bacteria or yeast, eating fermented foods is the equivalent of adding fuel to the fire.
This means that while it’s true that fermented foods do have potential health benefits, they may actually cause more harm than good by perpetuating gut infections!
That’s why, after working with thousands of patients in my clinic, I’ve seen time and time again that it’s best to avoid fermented foods until you have restored the healthy balance in your gut.
Many of my patients have found that after their gut issues have cleared, they are able to add in high-quality fermented foods to keep their population of good bacteria going strong. However, everyone is different and you know your own body best. If after overcoming Candida or SIBO, you still find that you don’t tolerate fermented foods, there is no reason to add them in! You can easily maintain a healthy level of good gut bacteria using the tips below.
How to Increase Beneficial Bacteria Without Fermented Foods
A great way to restore your population of good bacteria without feeding the bad bacteria or yeast is to take a multi-strain, high-potency probiotic that only features strains of bacteria that research has shown are beneficial for gut health.
If you are dealing with gut infections, leaky gut, or other gut issues, I recommend my Probiotic Capsules 100 Billion. This comprehensive, maximum-support probiotic formula contains 100 billion colony-forming units (CFUs) comprised of four researched strains of beneficial bacteria.
Once your gut health is restored, I recommend switching to my Probiotic Capsules 30 Billion as the perfect maintenance dose for long-term gut health, in addition to adding in fermented foods if you tolerate them.
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