Probiotic Rich Foods: What are They and Why are They Helpful?

Natural therapists have long been interested in the importance of our microbiome, the trillions of bacteria residing in our gut. Sensible food choices, managing stress and sleeping well can all help keep our microbiome in tip top condition.

In this blog we’ll have a look at five exciting foods which make their own contribution to our microbiome health. They’re known as fermented foods or you may see them referred to as probiotic-rich foods.

What are Probiotic-Rich Foods?

Fermented foods have been used in traditional cultures for centuries and were originally adopted as a way of preserving food when supply was scarce. These foods are cultured with either bacteria or yeast which feed off natural sugars present in the starting medium. As they do this, they not only change the characteristics of the food, but they also they produce a substance called lactic acid. This produces an acid environment which helps the food keep for longer, and when the food is eaten it creates an environment in our intestines in which our own gut bacteria love to live.

The bacteria which make us their home can be broadly classified into friendly or unfriendly species. The friendly ones such as lactobacillus bacteria prefer a slightly acid environment, whereas the unfriendly ones like E. coli don’t fare well in such conditions.

So by eating fermented foods we’re not only getting a dose of the beneficial probiotic bacteria themselves, we’re also encouraging the environment they like to live in. This is important, because unless the conditions are right inside our intestines, beneficial bacteria won’t thrive.

A healthy population of gut bacteria produces anti-inflammatory molecules as well as signalling chemicals to support immune system function. So their beneficial effects aren’t restricted to the digestive system but benefit the entire body.

Recent research has discovered human calls possess a receptor for a chemical produced by lactic acid bacteria. Once these receptors are stimulated, the immune system responds. At the moment we don’t know exactly how the immune system is affected, but it’s clear from this research fermented foods can affect our health in a positive way.

Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut is made by fermenting shredded cabbage by lactic acid bacteria. It contains several strains of lactobacillus bacteria which are a species which normally inhabit a healthy gut. It also contains plenty of fibre, vitamins and antioxidants.

Choose sauerkraut which is unpasteurised otherwise the beneficial bacteria will have been destroyed. Add a spoonful to any meal, add to soups or casseroles, or use in sandwiches.

Sauerkraut has an Asian cousin, Kimchi, which is strongly flavoured with spices.

Kombucha

Kombucha, which is available in an array of flavours, is a lightly sparkling drink fermented from green tea.

It’s the acid produced during the fermentation process which gives kombucha its distinctive sour taste. Kombucha’s health benefits are related not only to the green tea starting medium which contains beneficial antioxidants, vitamins and immune-supporting compounds but also because of the probiotic bacteria it contains.

It’s best to choose unpasteurised kombucha with no added sugar.

Kefir

Kefir is a drink a little like thin yoghurt. Although traditionally made using milk, kefir can be made from sweetened water, coconut water or coconut milk.

It contains plenty of beneficial bacteria, and it has been the subject of several research studies. These have discovered kefir may help to calm an overactive immune system, normalise cholesterol levels and reduce bloating and abdominal discomfort, even with people who don’t usually tolerate milk products.

Tempeh

Protein-rich, nutty tempeh is made by fermenting soya beans with a fungus. Its firm texture means it’s ideal for stir-fries.

Once soya beans have been fermented, they are easier to digest, contain fewer antinutrients and are a great source of vitamin K2, which is crucial for bone, muscle and artery health.

Unfermented soya beans contain a substance called phytic acid which can interfere with the body’s absorption of minerals like magnesium and calcium. Fermentation reduces phytic acid levels meaning more of these minerals can be absorbed from tempeh than from soya beans.

Miso

Miso is also made from soya beans. Its a thick salty paste often used to make soup or as a savoury flavouring in marinades and dips.

Miso can be white, yellow, red or brown in colour. The darker the colour, the longer it’s has been fermented and the richer the flavour.

Fermented foods can provide valuable nutrients as well as support your gut bacteria. If your microbiome is out of balance it can profoundly affect your wellbeing. Functional medicine understands the role of your microbiome in optimum health, so your therapist may recommend a test to evaluate the species of bacteria residing there.