Three years ago I suffered from a severe facial staph infection. Over the course of six months my face turned beet red with daily flair ups and dryness. At the time I had no idea what the cause of it was. I slowly gave up sugar, gluten, spicy foods, alcohol, all to no avail. I finally discovered the root of the problem when a dermatologist tested my facial dermis for a topical staph infection. Happy ending? Yes absolutely; my skin infection went away in a matter of weeks. But amidst the myriad of tests I had to take, I learned something that totally shocked me: my gut flora was completely depleted of any good bacteria. In fact, the doctor asked me if I had taken any antibiotics recently because only someone who had been on an intense course of antibiotics could have as poor of gut flora as myself. I hadn’t taken any antibiotics in at least three years…
Surprised, embarrassed, and slightly terrified that I have been walking around defenseless to various germs, deadly bacteria, and toxins, I decided I needed to majorly change my diet. That is how my great love affair with lacto-fermented foods began.
Lacto-fermentation is a biological process in which vegetable and fruit sugars are converted into lactic acid. According to a recent study from Oklahoma State University, the benefits of lactic acid may include improved nutritional value of food, control of intestinal infections, improved digestion of lactose, control of certain types of cancers, and control of serum cholesterol levels.
The proliferation of lactobacilli in fermented vegetables enhances their digestibility and increases the mineral levels. These beneficial organisms produce numerous helpful enzymes as well as antibiotic and anti carcinogenic substances. Their main by-product lactic acid, not only keeps vegetables and fruits in a state of perfect preservation but also promotes the growth of healthy flora throughout the intestine.
Sally Fallon, Nourishing Traditions, Page 89
Before the advent of refrigeration, people still enjoyed their vegetables and fruits in the winter. With only a pinch of salt, a teaspoon of whey, and a temperate, stable environment vegetables and fruits would magically become powerhouses of enzymes and probiotics in a matter of weeks.
Pound for pound, fermented material will have more nutrition packed into it than the raw material it came from because, aside from acting like a miniature detoxification machines, microbes add heaps of nutrients of whatever it is they’re growing in. Using enzyme power, single-celled bacteria and fungi manufacture all the vitamins, amino-acids, nucleic acids, fatty acids they need from simple starting materials like sugar, starch, and cellulose. They can thrive on foods that would leave us horribly malnourished. But we are bigger than they are. When we eat yogurt, real pickles, real sauerkraut – or any food containing living cultures – our digestive juices attack and destroy many of the little critters, exploding their fragile bodies. Many survive and protect us but those who are digested donate all their nutritious parts to us.
Catherine Shanahan, MD, Deep Nutrition, Page 146
The “little critters ” who survive our digestive system and then protect us from invasive bacteria are called “probiotics”. The World Health Organization defines probiotics as “live microorganisms that when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host”.
The first group, often referred to with the umbrella term probiotics, is comprised of the same beneficial bacteria that preserve, detoxify, and enrich our food. These microbes are friendly and very well behaved. After all, we feed and house them, so its in their best interest to keep us healthy. To that end, they secrete hormones that help coordinate the muscular contractions of intestinal peristalsis, while keeping a sharp look out for the bad guys: the pathogens. Probiotics work with our immune system. If pathogens hope to gain foothold, they have to get past the phalanx of probiotics first. While you are watching Survivor or Top Chef, microbes in your gut are making alliances and scheming against each other for control of your internal real estate. Not only does the outcome of their battles determine whether or not a deadly strain of E Coli in you manure-tainted spinach kills you, studies have shown that live-cultured foods containing probiotics help prevent allergic, autoimmune, and inflammatory diseases.
Catherine Shanahan, MD, Deep Nutrition, Page 148
Unfortunately probiotics are a highly sensitive bacteria. Most of the sauerkraut and pickles we buy at the store has been made with vinegar (which creates a environment too acidic for probiotics to survive in) or are pasteurized (which kills not only pathogens, but also the probiotics, as well as the rest of the nutrition in the food). Fortunately, the process of lacto-fermentation is quite simple. Fruits and vegetables are washed, cut up, mixed with sea salt and spices and then pounded to release juices. Place them in a air tight container, wait for a few weeks or months, and you have a delicious, tangy ferment filled with little supermen ready to clean out any pathogens residing in your gut. If you have a crazy schedule, are in between batches of lacto-fermented veggies, or just don’t want to venture into homemade lacto-fermention there are some brands of sauerkraut and pickles with no vinegar and that aren’t pasteurized. You can find lacto-fermented veggies here.
Wanna start fermenting food? Here are a few easy recipes we make on a regular basis that can help you get started.
You can also get a good dose of probiotics by purchasing a supplement at the store. I would highly recommend both: eating lacto-fermented foods and taking probiotics. Due to the amount of environmental toxins we are exposed on a daily basis, our bodies need all the help they can get to fight unwanted pathogens and viruses.
It is time to bring back lacto-fermentation to the forefront of real nutrition. For centuries people of all nationalities and social strata have fermented, cultured, and sprouted their foods. Somehow in the 20th century we decided the ancient wisdom of lacto-fermentation is unhygienic and inefficient. We replaced it with refrigerators, strong vinegar, pasteurization, and antibiotics. The results of our scientific success: chronic viral infections, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, Crohn’s disease, ullcerative colitis, clostridum dificile entercolitis, irritable bowel movement, and the list goes on and on.
Many commentators have observed that America is a nation lacking culture – how can we be cultured when we eat only food that has been canned, pasteurized, and embalmed? How ironic that the road to culture in our germophobic technological society requires, first and foremost, that we enter into an alchemical relationship with bacteria and fungi, and that we bring to our tables foods and beverages prepared by magicians, not machines.
Sally Fallon’s Preface to Sandor Katz’s “Wild Fermentation”
Click here to ead Part Two of What in the World is Lacto-Fermentation? where I talk about store bought probiotics here.