I have only just recently become a ‘Fermenteer’, one of that happy band that has re-discovered the ancient art of fermenting food.
As I learned more and more about healthy eating and the incredibly important relationship between our gut and our health, I began to understand why just about every culture has its own …. well, it’s own culture. There’s sauerkraut, soused herrings, sourdough and dill pickles from Europe, kimchi from Korea, natto and tempeh from Japan, yoghurt from the Middle East – it seems that people for centuries have recognised and benefitted from fermented food as a natural way of prolonging the life of whole foods and, brilliantly as it turns out, nurturing our health.
What is it that makes ferments so beneficial? It all comes down to bacteria, or probiotics. We are only just now starting to realise the huge importance of our gut bacteria in managing the delicate and subtle balance of our bodies. A healthy human being has more bacteria in their tummy than they have cells in their body and all those bacteria work in either symbiosis (mutual benefit) or commensalism (without causing any harm) with the bodily systems that regulate well being and good health.
Our gut, and the bacteria in it, communicate directly with our central nervous system and work together as a second brain, managing our immune system, releasing mood changing hormones; seratonin, the happiness hormone,for example, is almost exclusively produced by the gut. In addition this process works to regulate the many communication and transport networks throughout our body to ensure that the nutrients in our food get to where they are needed, and that anything nasty doesn’t. When you realise that 80% of your immune system comes from your gut, you start to appreciate how important this balance is. Occasionally the microbiome (the name given to the bacteria that live inside us, and also on our skin) is disrupted. This can happen when we take anti-biotics (or eat animal products that contain anti-biotics), take certain medications (things like NSAIDs including aspirin or Ibuprofen), suffer an injury or prolonged periods of stress, drink heavily (especially on an empty stomach) or eat a diet disproportionately high in refined carbs and sugar. Most of us have done most of these things (sometimes all at the same time).
When the microbiome becomes disrupted or out of balance, it is called dysbiosis. In this case, the wrong sort of bacteria and yeasts grow at the expense of the right sort. Rather than working in harmony with our bodies, mis-placed bacteria massively interfere with our natural processes. They produce waste products that are toxic, causing our immune systems to swing into action and generating systemic inflammation. Certain yeasts, like Candida, have roots which burrow into the lining of our intestines, breaking down the structure of the barrier wall and helping to create the dreaded ‘leaky gut’ – this is when undigested micro-particles of food (normally proteins which are difficult for our bodies to break down) can sneak through the gaps in our intestinal lining and into our blood stream, there they are recognised as ‘hostile’ by our immune system and, again, the body’s healing response, inflammation is triggered – and unfortunately systemic and sustained inflammation is the precursor of just about every one of the chronic diseases that are so prevalent today, including IBS, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Bad bacteria love to eat the sugars that are created when we eat refined carbs and if our diet (like most people’s today) is high in these sort of processed and refined foods (eg bread, biscuits, cakes, chocolates, pasta, white rice, carbonated drinks and fruit juice) they will thrive.The friendly bacteria, on the other hand, are nurtured by vegetable and fruit fibres, especially the non-soluble fibres found in wholegrains and vegetables like Jerusalem Artichokes, asparagus and leafy greens (called prebiotics). So a diet high in plant based foods and low in sugar and refined carbs provides the ideal gut environment for these positive bacteria to thrive, whilst starving out the bad guys. Unfortunately for most of us, our diet is back to front – we eat loads of the foods that the bad guys like and very little to support the good guys and so it is they that get starved out instead.
The symptoms of dysbiosis are many and varied, and depend on the individual concerned, their particular genetic make-up and their lifestyle choices, including the food they eat. Because an imbalance in gut bacteria disrupts the very systems that manage our well being as a whole, the symptoms of dysbiosis can affect parts of our bodies that seem a long way away from our gut. These symptoms can range from the more obvious bloating, acid reflux (GERD) and stomach cramps to headaches, mood-swings, anxiety and depression and even include eczema, psoriasis, joint and muscle pain, fibromyalgia, water retention, and cramps. In addition, food allergies and intolerances are commonly associated with dysbiosis.
Luckily for us, our gut wants to be balanced and will quickly revert to normal if we provide the right environment for it to do so. And that’s where fermented foods come in. They are loaded with good bacteria and help to redress any imbalance there may be. In combination with small changes to diet that include eating as many fresh and lightly cooked veggies as you can possibly cram in and cutting out the sugary crap as much as possible, they release into our digestive system the sort of bacteria that calm and soothe our systems, restoring balance and harmony and ease us into health and well-being.
On top of all that they are fun to make and very easy to do. There is also the added benefit of a larder full of lovely bubbly bottles and jars and the satisfaction that comes from doing something really positive to the benefit of your and your family’s health. For anyone interested to find out more, I strongly recommend a visit to culturedfoodlife.com. There you will find a whole host of interesting and specialised information, recipes and tips.
To get you started, here is a list of the most common ferments that you can easily make at home.
- Milk Kefir, which tastes like a more sour and tangy yogurt can be made from dairy, nut or coconut milk and requires a powdered starter or milk kefir grains to get you going, easily available online. ‘Fermenteers’ are always sharing and swapping ideas, recipes and starter cultures (kefir grains and SCOBY’s keep multiplying) so it is worth finding out if there is a group near you.
- Water Kefir is a delicious, slightly fizzy fermented drink that can be flavoured with almost anything and is a brilliant substitute for fruit juice or sugary fizzy drinks. Water kefir is also made from grains that, like milk kefir grains, are easily available online.
- Kombucha. This is really amazing. Known as ‘Booch’ to it’s friends, Kombucha is a fermented tea that can also be flavoured in all sorts of delicious ways. My favourite is ginger as the end result is just like ginger beer. Kombucha requires something called a SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast) which is very much like the ‘mother’ that is used in making vinegar or ginger beer. If you’re anything like me, you will develop a close and abiding relationship with your SCOBY’s (two of my stalwarts are in the picture above – I haven’t quite given them names yet, but I’m thinking about it!!). Like Kefir grains, SCOBY’s are available online, or can be provided by a fellow fermenteer.
- Cultured Veggies. Possibly the easiest and healthiest thing you can do in your kitchen. Pack your veggies (whatever you feel like – cucumbers, green beans, chillis, garlic cloves) into a jar, pour on a light saline solution and leave nature to do its thing. Sauerkraut involves slicing a cabbage very, very finely (a mandolin is good for this), ‘massaging’ it with a teaspoon of salt until the juices start to flow and the cabbage starts to break down (can take a little bit of time), and then cramming into jars where it stays until it tastes right to you – a little bit sour, a little bit salty.
- Sourdough bread. There is something fundamentally grounding about sourdough. A fermented starter is fed daily and used to bake the most delicious yeast-free bread. Bread has been made this way for centuries and produces beautiful crusty loaves you can be really proud of.
Once you get a hang of the basics, you can play on an infinite number of variations and you can even add home brewed beer to the above list, it’s realy just fermented hops and barley after all! And the BEST thing is that while fermented foods help you tap into ancient wisdom, they do your body a huge, huge favour.