Unless you have been living on the moon over the last few years (and I think they MAY have internet on the moon by now) you have heard that eating “fermented foods” are the biggest way to eat your way to health and happiness. Saurkraut has been classified as a superfood and Kim Chee has made its way out of the Korean joints and right onto supermarket shelves. I’m sure the resurgence of the Weston Price movement along with the Paleo camp helped catapult the notion that fermented foods are the golden path to immortality but such generalization is, as most nutritional therapies are, a double edged sword.
It all started with yogurt being the “fountain of youth” when a researcher named Uya Metchnikoff found a group of Bulgarians that lived to be well over 100 years old. The “common ground” he found was they all at a thick (and sometimes drank a thinned mixture) yogurt as part of their daily diets. (Incidentally yogurt is a staple in many European and Middle Eastern diets as well). This researcher, as most nutritional researchers do, put one and one together and came up with three. Just like the researchers who were responsible for why the French stayed so young and thin and figured it MUST be the wine, Metchnikoff came up with the fact that it must be the yogurt that was the end all be all secret to their long life.
Never mind this particular group of people lived a remarkably stress-free life and had copious amounts of home grown (organic) vegetables and pastured animal products in their diets. No chemicals, no stress, a lot of movement tending those animals and vegetables, and it had to be the yogurt??
I am not saying a little yogurt is a bad thing. I love my homemade Greek yogurt in the mornings with honey. Thankfully it is low in lactic acid.
“What the heck is lactic acid??” you might be asking. In a word, especially when your metabolism is dysfunctional in any way lactic acid can be incredibly inflammatory and stressful for the body and it’s ability to produce energy in an effective way. Stressed cells create lactic acid as a waste byproduct and lactic acid must be processed by the body. (We will be talking about lactic acid and the benefits of CO2 in a coming post!) Lactic acid must be converted to glucose in the liver. The problem lies in when there is already stress present in the body in the form of damaged metabolism, estrogen dominance, hypothyroidism, adrenal dysfunction and/or toxic overload. The liver, already stressed from any or all of these issues, is further overloaded trying to convert lactic acid into glucose.
If that isn’t enough, adding insult to injury fermented vegetables that seem to be taking center stage and many of those vegetables involve using raw cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables. Let me be clear. Raw cabbage is goitrogenic and fermentation does not nullify the goitrogenic effects, so, even assuming the probiotic qualities of lacto-fermented vegetables are, in fact, as powerful as the claims, the goitrogens present in fermented raw cabbage outweigh any potential benefits. I’m not saying a little saurkraut on a grass-fed hot dog is a nutritional deal breaker but I have clients who had been eating crocks full of pickled vegetables and gallons of kombucha along with pints of yogurt every single day in the hopes of repopulating “friendly” gut bacteria and most of those clients felt, in a word, unwell, without even understanding the connection could be the fermented foods that have been so touted as life giving.
It should be noted that fermentation as a traditional food preparation was a matter of necessity. It was the only way to preserve dairy, vegetables and fruits through the long winters. Though these cultures generally thrived, they did not suffer from the onslaught of chemicals and other toxic overload our bodies are today. Their bodies tolerated much more stress from these foods because they ate dramatically different higher quality simpler foods and stress was, often, less chronic, though acute stress still obviously existed.
Fermented foods, especially those that are homemade and unheated, are sometimes high in fungal toxins and these fungi are carcinogenic. Fermented vegetables, beans, and fish, eaten in large amounts by the Asian population, has been linked to a 3.4 fold risk of developing esophogeal cancer in men over 40. (That’s just eating them once a week.) There are many studies I could cite but this is not the focus of this post. The fact is, fermented foods put a strain on the system if the body is overloaded (as is the case with metabolic disorder). Many of my clients who have eaten fermented foods thinking they are doing something good for their body experience gastric distress and a general feeling of being unwell. Many of these are women who actually notice the incidences of vaginal yeast infections. Once coaxed off the fermented foods, these feelings dissipate.
Although we will be discussing more myths of fermented foods in a follow-on shortly, you all may be scratching your heads about now wondering about why I am dismissing eating fermented foods when they are so good at repopulating the gut with friendly bacteria, let me share with you this fact. Most vegetables and beans and dairy (indeed even some Kombucha and kefir) are lacto-fermented with Lactobacillus bulgaricus (also the strain in most yogurt and low quality probiotics). Here’s the thing. This strain of bacteria does not live as a normal inhabitant in our guts. Let me be clear. There are a few studies that say probiotic strains of bacteria stimulate the production of secretory IgA and IFN-γ (immune system stimulation) but there have been no clear studies that directly support the use of Lactobacciullus bulgaricus, the main component in lacto-fermented vegetables, has anything but a transitory effect on gut health. In fact, once these fermented vegetables are digested, there is evidence that these bacteria simply leave the body at the very next bowel movement.
Incidentally, many probiotics have only a few strains of lactic acid bacteria yet your gut contains trillions of bacteria of over 500 strains. I recommend taking a broad spectrum soil based probiotic with prebiotics. (Post forthcoming) Our favorite is Prescript Assist. This helps repopulate the gut without the lactic acid strain on the metabolism.
Note:: I do recommend, when eating bread, the bread be sourdough and, if wheat, the wheat should be an heirloom strain like spelt or einkorn. Fermenting the dough seems to break down the gluten in a way that makes it much more digestible. This bread is not high in lactic acid and does not put a strain on metabolism the way other fermented foods would do. When choosing fermented dairy, Greek yogurt is the lowest in lactic acid.