We are in the midst of a fermenting frenzy, which I think is actually only going to get bigger and bigger. This is all amazing and good for our gut health – right? Not always. Well, read this first!
While the scientific revelations about the impact of our gut health and the ‘good bugs’ on our well being, mental health and skin condition is getting everyone very excited, there is a lot we still don’t know. In fact, we are only just scratching the surface and to me this means ‘proceed with caution’.
Instead, what I am seeing with the use of fermented foods is this running theme – if something is good for you, taking 10 or 100 times the amount MUST BE AMAZING. It’s that common issue of the pendulum swinging from extreme to extreme. You read that a little fermented food and drink in your diet is good, then having massive doses is da bomb, right? Ummmm…no.
First of all, here are some examples of fermented foods – sauerkraut, kimchi, other fermented vegetables like, yoghurt, kefir, sour cream, kvass, water kefir, kombucha, ginger beer, soy based miso, natto and naturally brewed soy sauce, and even things like sourdough bread, aged cheeses, olives and salami are all types of somewhat fermented foods.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am all for fermented foods, gut health and probiotics. In fact, I actually produce a commercially fermented kombucha drink called Indibucha! I believe that we do so much harm to our beneficial gut bacteria these days (through the diet and lifestyle we lead, stress, and antibiotic use to name a few) that we could all do with a little help in that department. However, having specialised in gut health when I was seeing clients and having seen many a stool sample report in my time, I have to add a few caveats because there are always exceptions to the rule.
Individual differences in a person will dictate how they will respond to various probiotics or fermented foods. Things such as age, immune system status, current gut flora and gut flora imbalance will all play a role. It’s worth remembering that an imbalance of ‘good bugs’ can cause just as many issues for an individual as the ‘bad bugs’ imbalance!
The image below is an excerpt example of a stool sample report. I have seen everything from only 4+ (highest number rating) of Lactobacillus spp and NG (no growth) of other beneficial bacteria, to LOTS of dysbiotic flora…and both examples had many of the same symptoms!
It is also worth noting that E.Coli is in the ‘Expected/Beneficial Flora’ because it is commonly found in the healthy gut flora compositions and plays a role in the beneficial gut flora diversity.
Our gut likes diversity but it also likes balance, and if you happen to have TOO much of the beneficial bacteria, you might be ‘feeding’ that imbalance with copious amounts of fermented foods and drinks and actually making your issues worse. Most people turn to fermented foods to ‘heal their gut’. But I have seen them end up in a worse condition. Unless you know WHAT is causing the imbalance in the first place, how do you know WHAT you need more of to correct that imbalance and the health your gut?
Some of the symptoms that may be associated with both ‘Bad’ and ‘Good’ bacterial imbalances
|‘Bad’ Bacterial Imbalance||‘Good’ Bacterial Imbalance|
|Diarrhoea / Constipation||Diarrhoea / Constipation|
|Skin Conditions||Skin Conditions|
See my point? They can be exactly the same! This is why when you first start to introduce the fermented foods or drinks, or even probiotics, into your diet – do it slowly. Sometimes you need to build up, and you can have some of these symptoms as your body adjusts, but start slow. IF the symptoms keep happening after a few weeks, please see a qualified health professional who specialises in gut health and functional testing, and to stop the fermented foods. Just because someone on the Internet said ‘Fermented foods for everyone – always’, does not mean you should continue to include them in your diet if they are not working for you at this point!
I am a big believer in home fermenting – I think it is a great thing to be doing! I have made fermented chilli and other vegetables, my own sauerkraut and coconut yoghurt… I love trying them all.
I am also studying and doing a post-graduate Food Science and Technology. So I get to spend time in a lab, growing BUGS! And one of our first lab experiments was to actually make sauerkraut and then to take a sample of the sauerkraut liquid, plate it out on an agar plate (petri dish) and culture what was in the liquid every week. We would then take individual colonies from the plates, smear and stain them to look at them under a microscope to see what we had been growing.
What came out of these experiments surprised me a little. Many of the samples (I am talking over 65%) were dominated by wild yeasts – even when fermented past 7 days, past 14 and some even past 21 days! These kraut samples were simply made by us in the lab with just salt and cabbage (gloves on) and then fermented anaerobically at a constant temperature. Perfect conditions you would think!
I don’t know about you, but I always thought that sauerkraut would have nothing but lactobacillus spp. (well, firstly leuconostoc mesenteroides and then LAB spp.) and to see so many yeasts dominating the culture was a real eye opener for me. Many people attempt to use foods such as sauerkraut to help ‘reduce’ symptoms associated with potential yeast overgrowth in the body…but as I found in my research test results – you could be actually consuming additional yeasts when you were actually trying to avoid them or reduce them.
From what I’ve found out to date, here are recommendations for when you are making sauerkraut at home:
- Make sure you are using 2-2.5% (2.25% is bang on perfect!) of salt to vegetable and not more (or less) than this, as it can negatively impact the microorganisms. So for 1 kilogram of cabbage, you would use 22.5 grams of salt or 4 teaspoons (which is actually 22.75 grams).
- Mix the salt and cabbage really, really well! Even a change of as little as 0.1% in salt concentration within pockets in the ferment can impact the various organisms.
- Always ferment your sauerkraut anaerobically (without air, avoid letting in any oxygen and make sure the cabbage is completely covered in brine in a jar/pot) and take the ferment to at least 7 days. The process can take up to two months and is generally considered complete “when the acidity is at 1.7%, with a pH of 3.4 to 3.6” (Hutkins, 2006)
- Although this is not necessary to star the fermentation process, you could even use a starter culture if you want to make super sure of what is being ‘grown’ in your ferment :).
My point is not to scare but to simply make you aware that if a particular fermented food or drink is not working for you and you are having unexplainable gut type symptoms – maybe look at stopping or reducing that food for a period of time and then slowly reintroducing to gauge your body’s response to it. It may be that you are simply reacting to an imbalance of a particular bacterium, which may even be the ‘good’ one.
Keeping a food and symptom diary during this time can assist with pointing out the issues with particular foods. I hear of a lot of people with gut issues and what do they do? They double down on the fermented foods and introduce MORE in an attempt to fix their issues. This is not the move I would take. Remove (or Reduce) – Reassess – Reintroduce slowly and see how you go. If you keep having issues, please go and see a qualified health professional and maybe consider a stool analysis.
Take home message
Fermented foods, drinks and probiotics are fantastic and a majority of people could benefit from adding some to their diet. However, Remember the caveats above! Some people might be better off without, and most need to monitor the amounts they consume. Having sauerkraut, kimchi AND fermented vegetables with every breakfast, lunch and dinner while chugging down on your kefir or kombucha may not be the way to achieve good gut health, it may actually be contributing to your gut health issues.
When introducing probiotics or fermented foods into your diet go slow.
- If you are pregnant or breastfeeding and have never consumed probiotics or fermented foods, it is often not recommended to introduce any new forms into your diet at that point. Consult your primary health care professional first.
- If you are immunocompromised, it is also not recommend to consume probiotics or fermented foods with ‘live’ bacteria or yeast. Consult your primary health care professional first.
- Parents should do their own research before deciding if they would like to introduce fermented foods into their child’s diet.
- Go slow with fermented foods – start with a teaspoon or a tablespoon with a meal once a day for a week and see how your body tolerates it. Slowly increase from there.
- With probiotics supplements – follow the advice on the pack and look for multi-strain probiotics and ‘change’ up the strains you are taking each time you need to buy a new pack. And again – never start taking any new supplement without consulting your primary health care professional first.
And lastly! Always remember – if something in your diet is not working for you…change it.
‘Remove (or Reduce) – Reassess – Reintroduce’
If you keep having issues, please go and see a qualified health professional.