A bottle of bubbling bacteria that tastes like diluted vinegar with a hint of fruit juice: This is hardly an appetizing beverage description. I don’t remember exactly why I decided to try kombucha, a fermented tea drink, over 10 years ago, but I did—and it was delicious, very different than anything else I’d ever drunk. It made my often-unhappy stomach feel settled and calm.
If you had asked me about fermented foods then, alcohol, cheese and sauerkraut were the only foods that would have come to mind. A decade or two ago, fermented foods—what I call “healing foods”—were not part of my diet. Few, if any, traditionally fermented foods would have been on my plate. I didn’t know much about the gut, or what a probiotic was, or that bacteria play a vital role in our health.
With the help of a naturopathic physician, I learned about healing foods and making my gut happy. Food as medicine, the microbiome and the healing power of nature was so intriguing that it has become the basis of my personal and professional life. Without giving our gut the appropriate nourishment, it is hard to expect the rest of our body to function well.
Microbiomes and healing foods are finally enjoying their time in the spotlight. To me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the digestive tract is the microbiome, a term that describes the 10 to 100 trillion microbial cells, mostly bacteria, that live harmoniously with us inside our digestive tract.
The hundreds, and potentially thousands, of different types of bacteria that make up our microbiome have several jobs. Not surprisingly, these bugs help us digest food, they make a few vitamins, crowd out bacteria that can make us sick and teach our immune system what needs attention and what can or should be ignored. Our microbiome is quickly responsive to changes. This is good news if you want to improve your gut health—making a few simple changes can have an impact.
Want to nourish your microbiome but don’t know where to start? Begin with an open mind about trying new foods. One of the most influential factors on our microbiome is food, and fermented foods are a delicious way to support a healthier gut and microbiome.
When a vegetable or grain undergoes fermentation, some of the nutrients become more easily absorbed by our digestive tract. This means the good things in food can be used by your body more efficiently. The fiber in fermented vegetables or grains are a great source of fuel for the bugs in your microbiome. Keeping them well-fed and happy means they can keep you happy and healthy.
Fermented foods may be enjoying a revival these days, but humans have been consuming foods and beverages transformed by micro-organisms, yeast, mold and bacteria for millennia. Fermentation is one of the oldest methods for processing and preserving food. Traditionally cultured foods tend to be more tart and tangy than their mass-produced or processed counterparts.
If you eat cereal or granola with milk, try kefir or yogurt. To get the most benefit, be sure to look for a product that does not have added sugars and says “live and active cultures.” Like spicy foods? Try kimchi on a burger or sausage. I recently had a pizza with kimchi at Iechyd Da
in Elkhart and it was amazing. Does kombucha sound intriguing? Gather a group of friends and several bottles for a tasting party. The taste of kombucha varies between brands, from super tart to almost sweet; I bet you can find more than one brand that will please your palate. Maple City Market
in Goshen and Purple Porch Co-op
in South Bend have several flavors of kombucha on tap. When trying a new flavor or food, I find it’s best to give it several chances before deciding whether I like it.
As a naturopathic doctor, two of my favorite phrases are “vis medicatrix naturae” (the healing power of nature) and “food as medicine.” Fermented foods embody both of these qualities. To me, the wonder of these seemingly ancient micro-organisms creating delicious foods that help nourish our bodies on several levels is awe-inspiring. Many of these foods can easily be made at home with minimal tools and the patience to let nature do her job, a truly natural way to support health and healing.
An easy introduction to making your own fermented food is to let a bowl of oatmeal soak in water for 24 hours before cooking as you normally would. The change in taste and texture is subtle but surprising. The classic reference for an introduction into the fantastic world of fermented foods is Sandor Ellix Katz’s Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods
Kombucha and kefir water are also great for your first venture into fermented foods. Ask around for a starter. You might be surprised who has a kitchen full of healing foods and wants to share the “vis medicatrix naturae” with you.