Long before refrigeration, artificial preservatives and canning, people used a variety of preservation techniques. One of these was fermentation. Almost all ancient civilisations had at least one type of fermented food in their diet, such as sauerkraut, yogurt, Indian chutneys, Korean kimchi, and pickled vegetables. There were other benefits that came from these foods besides increased storage time. Research shows that fermentation enhances digestibility and increases the nutrient values of the food.
Fermentation For Improved Gut Function
Fermented foods provide a good source of beneficial bacteria which colonise the gut. Fermented foods can provide a better source of probiotics compared to supplements. Some studies have shown that fermented foods contain up to 100 times more probiotics than the average supplement. But why are probiotics so important for gut function?
Microbes living in the lower intestinal tract help with food digestion, regulate the immune system, and fight harmful bacteria. However, sometimes this community of bacteria can become imbalanced and lead to health problems.
When the gut bacteria become out of balance it can affect the immune system. Beneficial bacteria can help to restore this balance. Probiotics secrete protective substances which activate the immune system and prevent pathogens from taking over. Beneficial bacteria also play a crucial role in maintaining the lining of the digestive tract, which improves digestion and keeps the immune system strong.
Fermented Foods And The Immune System
Around 80% of the immune system is in the gut. So, when the gut gets disrupted, the immune system may suffer. This may lead to altered immune response, autoimmune dysfunction, and chronic inflammation. Therefore, a healthy gut equals a healthy immune system.
Another benefit of fermented foods is their excellent source of vitamins. Many studies have shown that the process of fermentation increases the availability of nutrients, such as vitamins A, D, C, K and some B vitamins. These are all essential for a functioning immune system.
Type Of Fermented Foods
- Sauerkraut – Although thought to have originated in China, Sauerkraut means “sour cabbage” in German. Prepared with cabbage and salt, sauerkraut is an excellent source of a number of vitamins and minerals.
- Kombucha – This fermented tea is made with a specific culture of bacteria and yeasts called SCOBY. The process of fermentation produces a carbonated beverage which is high in beneficial organic acids, enzymes, and B vitamins.
- Kefir – Similar to a drinkable yogurt, kefir is a fermented milk product that has been consumed for thousands of years. Kefir contains high levels of enzymes, minerals, vitamin B12 and vitamin K2.
- Pickles – Fermented cucumbers are thought to have originated in native India. Be aware of store-bought pickles as they are often made with vinegar, and not fermented. True fermented pickles contain an abundance of beneficial bacteria, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
Diet And The Immune System
A diet that is high in a variety of plant-based foods is a very effective way to support a healthy immune system. Consuming more fruits and vegetables will provide the body with a wide variety of nutrients that are beneficial for the immune system. It’s important to choose a wide range of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables to ensure a wide range of nutrients. Not only does a diet high in plant-based food provide essential nutrients for the body, the fibre contained in these foods feed your gut bacteria and support a healthy microbiome, which is essential for a healthy immune system.
How To Support A Healthy Microbiome
As mentioned above, the majority of the immune system is located in the gut and its functioning relies heavily on a healthy, well balanced microbiome. Keeping the microbiome healthy isn’t too difficult. Eating fermented foods is a good start as this provides an excellent source of probiotics to balance the gut bacteria. However, many people forget to feed them. If they don’t have a source of food, they cannot survive in the gut for very long. This is where prebiotics come in.
Prebiotics are abundant in plant foods. They are a type of fibre called resistant starch that feeds good bacteria in the gut. Resistant starch is important for supporting a healthy gut and can even protect you from disease. Resistant starch ‘resists’ digestion in the small intestine compared to other dietary starches that are digested in the upper gut. This means that resistant starch makes it to the large intestine, where the majority of good bacteria live.
The gut microbiome breaks down resistant starch in the large intestine, this is their fuel. As it’s broken down, it ferments and produces substances which support digestion and protect the gut against pathogens. Fibre that makes it to the large intestine is a food source for good bacteria, supporting their growth and activity which leads to many health and immunity benefits.
How Kefir Boosts The Immune System
Kefir is a good source of nutrients which support a healthy immune system, including:
- Vitamins and minerals – Kefir is a good source of vitamin B6 and zinc, both which are essential for the immune system. As well as this, the fermentation process allows these nutrients to become more bioavailable.
- Bioactive Peptides – One study found that kefir had 4 times the amount of bioactive peptides compared to regular milk. Bioactive peptides provide many health benefits, including modulating the immune system, regulating blood pressure and providing antioxidant properties.
- White Blood Cells – Fermented foods such as kefir help to increase the production of white t-cells. This improves communication between killer t-cells and helper t-cells. Therefore, improving overall immune function.
Making Kefir And Kombucha To Support Immunity
Both kefir and kombucha are simple to make at home and will provide a wide range of beneficial bacteria to support a healthy immune system.
To make milk kefir you will need milk kefir grains and your choice of milk. Milk kefir can be made with a variety of dairy free milks for those avoiding cows’ milk. You can find a great recipe here
Water kefir is a great dairy-free alternative as well as being lighter than milk kefir with a natural fizziness. You will need water kefir grains for this recipe
Kombucha is made by fermenting tea with a specific culture called SCOBY. Kombucha is carbonated and slightly sweet using only 4 ingredients
Both kefir and kombucha will provide a good source of beneficial bacteria for a healthy gut microbiome and a strong immune system. However, don’t forget to provide an abundance of plant-based foods for the good bacteria to survive and multiply.