Originally published in Bradford Today on March 08, 2020. In her weekly column, Bradford West Gwillimbury licensed nutritionist Nonie De Long, shares a food group you are likely missing and why you need it...
Thank you for the great column! I was noticing you are offering fermentation classes in the community and I was wondering about the benefit of home fermented foods and what they do for us. I wonder if it isn’t easier and better to just take probiotic supplements because they are standardized and simpler. I’ve read a bit and information seems to be conflicting and I find that really frustrating! I wonder if you can speak to that as well.
Great questions! I can see you’ve been reading and I agree, the information circulating is conflicting - even within the natural health community! A good part of the problem is that nutrition professionals will sometimes read a book or health article and find it compelling and not dig deeper into the research the author draws from to independently analyze the methodology and conclusions.
My policy when I come across health information is to check the data cited; read criticisms of the analysis (or divergent opinions) if they exist - checking the source data that set of opinions is based on - and search for independently corroborating information. If several respectable practitioners independently come out with similar statements I am more inclined to believe there has been rigorous assessment.
I also consider the source of the statement and follow the money. If the data is funded by a corporation/ company, then clearly company interests are relevant in any assessment. It doesn’t necessarily mean data is corrupted, but it does incentivize a particular conclusion and that doesn’t always translate into unbiased analysis or methodology.
Lastly, although it’s out of fashion right now, I read clinical notes from other practitioners. This is a long tradition among clinicians - long before evidence based medicine emerged as a standard - and it was how clinicians recorded and shared their findings with one another.
In homeopathy this is still the norm, and I find these case studies particularly beneficial in learning about specific health issues, treatments, and outcomes.
People aren’t homogenous. Not everyone responds the same way to the same therapy. Case studies capture this variability better than any other method I’ve come across. But not every nutrition professional sees value in this type of data.
So this explains a lot of the conflicting information we read on probiotics or any other health issue for that matter. Too, the natural health industry is in its infancy and regulation and education is quickly evolving.
So you are going to get professionals with varying levels of education and experience. Because of this I recommend that anyone interested in seeing a practitioner ask for a brief consult to ask questions and determine the expectations both parties have of working together. I know we aren’t used to doing this in the current medical paradigm, but I think it serves us across the board. I feel strongly that a patient has as much of a right to interview a health practitioner as a health practitioner has to interview a patient!
That aside, I will share herein what I feel to be the most relevant information to date on the health impacts of fermented foods.
I’ve been exploring, making, and consuming fermented foods for close to a decade now.
The indiscriminate use of antibiotics and normalization of highly processed foods has made gut biome pathology epidemic, and consuming fermented foods and/ or quality probiotics is a very easy way to help re-establish a healthy balance for most people. But maybe we need to back up here and cover some basics first.
What do I mean by gut biome? This term refers to the trillions of living microorganisms that inhabit the human digestive tract. They create a complex, symbiotic system, not unlike a rainforest. Other names for the gut biome are commensal microbiota, intestinal flora, gut bacteria, and gut microbiome. We also have bacterial colonies living on our skin, in our sinus cavities, and in our oral and vaginal cavities. They differ from person to person, as discovered by biome mapping projects. But projects like this have helped us understand our microbiota better.
As a result, we now know newborn babies are inoculated with beneficial bacteria from the mother when they pass through the birth canal and also via breastfeeding. Too, we know different people have different capacities to bounce back from antibiotic therapies and that these therapies can have a huge and long term impact on our overall health, as can other pharmaceutical medications.
The benefits of having a diverse and rich microbiome are still being discovered. But we know they are incredibly important for immunity, mental and emotional health, digestion and absorption of nutrients, intestinal motility, and intestinal integrity.
They also play a role in balancing pathogenic bacteria, decreasing inflammation, producing important fatty acids, synthesizing vitamins, and regulating neurotransmitters and hormones which, in turn, regulate many things in the body.
It has been shown that imbalances in the commensal microbiome play a role in Autism, depression, anxiety, learning disabilities, autoimmune disorders, memory disorders, blood pressure, heart disease, insulin dysfunction related to diabetes, IBS, SIBO, obesity, skin conditions, thyroid disorders, neurodegenerative diseases and even cancer.
For an incredible short little video on the research emerging to show the importance of the microbiome on mental health in particular, go here.
The good news is there are a number of things most of us can do to improve our microbiome. I say most of us because there are a subset of people for whom only fecal transplantation of healthy fecal colonies seems to work, as in C Difficile. But most people not infected with a superbug that wipes out their microbiome can benefit from some rather easy adjustments. These include:
Eating a whole foods diet high in fibre and healthy fats
Eliminating processed foods and sugars
Getting enough sleep regularly
Adding a good quality probiotic
Adding fermented foods into the diet
There are a few reasons I recommend eating fermented foods over simply taking probiotics. First, I’ve seen them repeatedly work, where with probiotics it’s hit or miss. Some probiotics deliver more frequently, but not for everyone because each person has different bacteria to different degrees.
There are so many fermented foods that contain such a diversity of bacteria that consuming a variety ensures exposure to any bacteria that may be needed. The body takes in what it needs and expels the rest. I’ve read data that suggests that no probiotics seed (take up residence) in the gut but then I’ve read data that suggests they can and do.
The prolific data now emerging on changes to health as a result of adding probiotics - that out of Caltech and that of Natasha Campbell-McBride, to name a few - demonstrate profound change to the microbiome whether strains seed or not. And, because some bacteria are transitory does not necessarily mean they are do not have impact.
Secondly, probiotic foods are inexpensive compared to quality probiotic supplements, and they are easy to make. They are the way our ancestors traditionally got their probiotics - that and via the soil - but most farming soil is no longer a rich source of these bacteria due to agricultural practices that use unnatural fertilizers instead of natural and sustainable farming methods like composting, soil resting, and crop rotation. So the soil is not something we can rely on at present for the bacteria we need.
Lastly, fermented foods contain bacteria that are alive. You can observe that they are living because they alter the foods they are placed in. When we purchase supplements or probiotic foods (yogurt for example) it’s very hard to know how active or alive the bacteria are. They have to be carefully handled every step of the way or specially coated to be effective. It’s like buying something washed in unicorn tears and hermetically sealed then transported by virgin angels to be sure of any benefit.
And each time you think you know what to look for, someone develops a supplement that goes a step further. Some practitioners feel that makes a product better, but I prefer to kick it old school. Nutrition should be straight forward. And I trust nature over science any day.
Some delicious fermented foods that are simple to make are yogurt, milk kefir, water kefir, coconut kefir, tepache, kombucha, sauerkraut, miso soup, kimchi, hot sauce, ketchup, salsa, and many, many more. I teach most of these and others in my Fun with Fermenting class, and I teach a class specifically on making kombucha. These classes can be found at the Newmarket, Bradford, and Barrie libraries and I follow them up with a hands-on fermenting class in my own kitchen that's loads of fun. Clients can find my upcoming class schedule here.
As always, if readers have their own health questions, I welcome them! Just send me an email. And if you’re looking for more specific health information check out my website and sign up for my free newsletter at nonienutritionista.com.
Nonie De Long is a registered orthomolecular nutritionist with a clinic in Bradford West Gwillimbury, where she offers holistic, integrative health care for physical and mental health issues. Check out her website here.
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