Kombucha, sauerkraut, kefir, pickles and other fermented foods are touted as a “must have” for a healthy gut and microbiome by almost every functional medicine and natural health expert. Yet, there’s something health experts aren’t telling you about fermented foods.
In fact, you can hardly walk through a grocery store or health food store without seeing these products on the shelf. Their signs proclaim how they benefit digestive issues, immune health, bowel regularity, and more.
However, there is a downside to fermented foods that you may not know about. The question of how and when to eat fermented foods is actually a hot button issue. You’ll find that my opinion differs from many functional medicine practitioners.
Let’s talk about why your gut health and microbiome are so important, the risk posed by fermented foods, and alternatives for increasing your levels of beneficial bacteria, including my two probiotics, Probiotic Capsules 100 Billion and Probiotic Capsules 30 Billion.
You can also check out this video, where I talk all about my stance on fermented foods:
The Importance of Gut Health and Your Microbiome
If you’re familiar with the importance of gut health, you likely know about your gut microbiome. It’s the ecosystem of microorganisms that live in your digestive tract. In recent years, scientists have discovered that the gut microbiome contains tens of trillions of microorganisms. This includes up to 1,000 different species of bacteria with over 3 million genes. That’s 150 times more genes than the ones encoded in your own chromosomes!
I like to think of your microbiome as a rainforest, with different species of good bacteria (probiotics), bad bacteria, and yeast. These are all living together in one ecosystem. If the good bacteria reign supreme, then you have a healthy gut. Which means a healthy immune system because nearly 80% of your immune system lives in your gut.1
However, if the balance is disrupted and the bad bacteria or yeast get out of control, you can develop SIBO, or Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth and Candida overgrowth. Both of these conditions can cause leaky gut, lead to a myriad of symptoms, and set you on the path to chronic illness and autoimmunity.
The Role of Fermented Foods in Gut Health
Fermented foods are prepared using the process of lacto-fermentation. Bacteria, yeast, and other microorganisms break down the sugar and starch in food and convert it into lactic acid. The lactic acid created during the fermentation process is a natural preservative. It inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria (which is why fermented foods “keep” for so long).2
Fermented foods digest easily as the nutrients break down into their most digestible form. The process of lacto-fermentation can also add nutritional value to your food. It can produce B vitamins, Omega 3 fatty acids, and digestive enzymes not naturally present in the food before fermentation.
So what exactly is the link between fermented foods and gut health?
The “lacto” portion of the term lacto-fermentation refers to a specific species of bacteria, Lactobacillus. Various strains of these bacteria are present in plants and even your gut microbiome. In fact, strains of Lactobacillus are often in probiotic supplements, because of their gut health benefits.
During the fermentation process, these bacterial strains are able to multiply quickly because, in addition to producing enzymes and nutrients, the fermentation process produces prebiotics, which feed the probiotics. So fermented foods are very high in probiotics and prebiotics, which feed your gut’s natural probiotics when you eat them.
For this reason, people with gut health issues, particularly Candida overgrowth or SIBO, often add fermented foods into their diet as part of their treatment protocol. They want to rebuild their population of probiotics that keep the bad bacteria and yeast in check.
The Fermentation Process
The problem is that this is hardly a clean and neat process. Remember when I said your microbiome is like a rainforest with multiple species living together? Well the fermentation process itself is a case of survival of the fittest. The players aren’t only the good guys.3
Kombucha, a popular fermented food, uses a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). Not only are good bacteria or probiotics present, bad bacteria and yeast are also present during the fermentation process.
All of the prebiotics produced during that process also feed bad bacteria and yeast. This means that fermented foods themselves may be high in bad bacteria and yeast.
In addition, the high concentration of prebiotics found in fermented foods also makes its way to your gut. There, it feeds good bacteria, bad bacteria, and yeast alike. So if you are dealing with SIBO or Candida overgrowth, and already have an overpopulation of bad bacteria or yeast, eating fermented foods adds fuel to the fire.
This means that while it’s true that fermented foods do have potential health benefits, they may actually cause more harm than good by perpetuating gut infections!
That’s why, after working with thousands of patients in my clinic, I recommend avoiding fermented foods until after you have restored the healthy balance in your gut.
Many of my patients included high-quality fermented foods in their diet after their gut issues have cleared. This actually helped support the population of good bacteria in their gut. However, everyone is different and you know your own body best. If, after overcoming Candida or SIBO, you still find that you don’t tolerate fermented foods, there is no reason to add them in! You can easily maintain a healthy level of good gut bacteria using the tips below.
How to Increase Beneficial Bacteria Without Fermented Foods
To restore your population of good bacteria without feeding the bad bacteria, take a multi-strain, high-potency probiotic. You want one that only features strains of bacteria that research has shown are beneficial for gut health.
If you are dealing with gut infections, leaky gut, or other gut issues, I recommend my Probiotic Capsules 100 Billion. I formulated my maximum-strength 100 Billion probiotics, with 4 of the most important, well-researched strains of beneficial bacteria. I made absolutely sure there were enough viable CFU’s in each capsule to support maximum digestive health and immune function. Most of the probiotics available at your local health-food store or online retailers don’t even come close the potency of my Probiotic Capsules 100 Billion.
Once your gut health is restored, I recommend switching to my Probiotic Capsules 30 Billion as the perfect maintenance dose for long-term gut health, in addition to adding in fermented foods if you tolerate them.
- The Gut: Where Bacteria and Immune System Meet. Helen Fields. Johns Hopkins.
- What Is Lacto-Fermentation, and Does It Have Health Benefits?. Elise Mandl. Healthline. 2019.
- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: A Fermentation Saga. Toni Tarver. Institute of Food Technology. 2016.