What Are the Health Benefits and Side Effects of Probiotics and Fermented Foods?

Fermented Food

Are you getting enough probiotics in your diet? Fermented foods are a probiotic powerhouse, but what is so fantastic about them anyway? There are all sorts of fads popping up every week, it seems. So, while knowing the health benefits (don’t forget side effects) of certain foods is well… beneficial, it’s also easy to be skeptical. You may have jumped on health food bandwagons before, waited/hoped/begged for results, and ultimately reached a state of empty-handed disappointment.

This is the thing, though: Eating fermented foods ISN’T another fad. Furthermore, it’s not some “superfood trend” that makes empty promises. In fact, fermented foods have been around for eons—literally, thousands of years.[1] Just ask your ancestors. 😀 Back when fridges and freezers weren’t a thing, something needed to be done to foods so they wouldn’t stink up the hut, cave, castle, what have you.

Food preservation aside, your stomach is this stuff’s number one fan as it helps vastly improve digestion. We’ll talk more about those proven benefits, but first thing’s first: Let’s talk probiotics!

Pickled Vegetables

What Are Probiotics?

According to WHO (The World Health Organization), probiotics are health supplements packed with good bacteria that feed your digestive tract. The keyword here is “good.” It’s crucial that your gut flora biome is balanced. Otherwise, you’re in for a myriad of gastric issues.[2]

I mentioned supplements in the previous paragraph, but that doesn’t mean you absolutely Probiotic Capsuleshave to take a pill to receive probiotics’ positive effects. Fermented foods definitely serve as an excellent, more cost-effective alternative.

In addition to Lactobacillus Acidophilus (which promotes the health of the small intestine, utrethra, and vagina and protects against salmonella, E. coli, and candida albicans), some other probiotic bacteria include:

Bifidobacterium Bifidum: prevents pathogenic bacteria and yeast from invading the vagina and large intestine.
Enterococcus faecium: helpful for diarrhea and shortens the duration of symptoms.[3]

What Are Fermented Foods Exactly?

Fermented this, fermented that. It’s about time I share what they are before we proceed with the benefits and the side effects, right?

Most of us have heard of sauerkraut (especially those of you with German roots). Well, that starts out as a whole food: cabbage. Add some pieces of fresh cabbage into an air-tight container with salt and water (brine), and in a matter of days, you’ll end up with good ole sauerkraut (“sauer” = sour and “kraut” = vegetable in German). Pickled cucumbers are typically fermentified (is that even a word?) with vinegar, but brine works as well… THOSE are fermented foods.

This transformation process converts a lot of the whole food’s carbs and sugars into lactic acid. (Ever notice the slight or, depending on your taste buds, immensely sour flavor in these foods? Lactic acid’s the culprit.)

As previously mentioned, this process extends shelf life. However, it also is a breeding ground for that good bacteria I’ve been talking about… probiotics!

Yogurt

The Benefits of Probiotics Found in Fermented Foods

A happy digestive tract means a happy myriad of microorganisms dwelling in the gut, which speaks volumes about one’s health overall. Probiotics aren’t just awesome for your gut. Your microbiome has been said to mirror your health overall. Therefore, probiotics can assist in your microbiome’s overall balancing act.

After doing quite a bit of research on my end, I came across something highly intriguing that I think will be of interest to you as well. There’s a proven connection between our gut AND our brain health. In fact, the stress you experience early on in life could very well change your microbiota profile for good.[4a]

What I’m about to share with you is anecdotal in nature, but I really think it’s important that I mentioned it. As a child, I was extremely stressed out and had intense social anxiety. As a child, I also experienced A LOT of gut issues. Now, I didn’t get anyone qualified to see if there was a true connection there, but that can’t be a mere coincidence. Unfortunately, I’m still quite prone to stress, and even though it’s not as bad, any ounce of worry hits my stomach… literally.

But lucky for me and everyone, ingesting probiotics in their supplement or food forms may actually ease stress levels and even kick one’s mood up a notch.

Another finding of interest: Probiotics aid in the digestion of lactose (the sugar found in dairy). Tons of people are lactose intolerant these days (me included), so that’s some pretty great news.[4b] Though I steer clear of dairy for various reasons, but I’ll save that for another post.

But wait… there’s more! They can help with certain side effects of antibiotics such as diarrhea as well as prevent the worsening of Crohn’s disease.[5a]

I realize we’ve been focusing way too much on the gut, so let’s get into non-belly-related pros, shall we? Probiotics can prevent cavities and treat seasonal allergies. And fermenting foods can make them more nutrient-dense. That’s right, folks. Not only does this epic process grant foods some pretty unique enzymes that completely alter their taste, but it even tacks on nutrients to already-supremely-healthy foods.[5b]

What’s isn’t this stuff good for?

Fermented Foods Are Easier on the Digestive Tract

Due to the bacterial cultures that have already started to break down complex sugars and such, you stomach doesn’t need to put in as much effort, resulting in less strain on your trusty digestive tract. So, in a way, raw food can be “inferior” to someone with a sensitive stomach. Oh, and when opting for ferm foods, you normally don’t have to worry about foodborne illness like E. coli because the process vanquishes virtually all other bad-guy bacteria. That doesn’t mean you should abandon raw foods entirely, but perhaps balance between the two.

What does this mean for sensitive and regular stomachs alike? Your body can efficiently, effectively, and readily gain more nutrients from food that has undergone fermentation. Also consider upping your intake if you’re suffering from constipation.[5c]

[Related Article: Healing Leaky Gut Naturally]

Top 5 Fermented Foods to Try

Some yummy common and no-so-common fermented foods (other than pickles, yogurt, or sauerkraut) that you can incorporate into your next meal:

1. Appam

Appam

A South Indian pancake made with fermented rice batter and coconut milk.

2. Dhokla

Dhokla

A vegetarian food that’s made with a fermented batter derived from rice and chickpeas.

3. Kefir

Kefir

A fermented milk product.

4. Kombucha

Kombucha

A sweetened black or green tea drink made by using a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast called SCOBY (not to be confused with Scooby-Doo).

5. Kimchi

Kimchi

A Korean cuisine staple made from salted and fermented vegetables, such as napa cabbages and Korean radishes seasoned with chili powder, scallions, garlics, ginger, and jeotgal (salted seafood).

How to Ferment Something

Fortunately, a multitude of fermented foods are readily available in just about any grocery store, but to control exactly what goes into what you eat (including the salt level), you’re better off mastering the art of fermentation yourself. The great news? It’s super easy to do and it’s difficult to go wrong. The bad news? It starts with an ‘m’… Mold. But if you’re adamant about checking on your concoction, you should be okay!

You probably think I have an obsession with sauerkraut by now. But there’s no way that can be unhealthy, right? Plus it’s one of the easiest ferm foods to make!

All you need to make a mean sauerkraut is cabbage, sea salt, and filtered water. And a clean glass jar like a Mason jar. Heck, why don’t I just share the following simple recipe with you?

Sauerkraut Dish

Ingredients

    1 large head green or red cabbage
    1 tbsp. sea salt
    1 cup water mixed with 1 tsp. sea sat

Directions

 1  Cut cabbage in half and finely slice.
 2  Put half of the sliced cabbage in a bowl and add ½ tbsp. sea salt.
 3  Squeeze the cabbage until it begins to break down and wilt a bit.
  Add remaining cabbage and sea salt. Continue squeezing until all the leaves are wilted and liquid drips off of the cabbage.
  When the liquid becomes briny and there’s quite a bit of it, tightly pack the cabbage into a large Mason jar (regular mouth quart).
  Set a smaller 4 oz. Mason jar inside the larger one on top of the cabbage. This will help weigh the cabbage down. The liquid should cover the cabbage completely. If it doesn’t, add salt water.
  Cover uncapped jar with a towel and place in room temperature area away from direct sunlight.
  For several days, check on your fermetifying cabbage and add additional salt water as needed to keep all the cabbage pieces submerged. While some white foam is to be expected, look out for discoloration or moldiness.
  After the span of a week, give your sauerkraut a taste. It will probably be tangy by then, but to really get the flavor to pop, I suggest allowing up to 10 days before you officially begin chowing down.
***When the process is complete, keep it covered and store it in the fridge. This stuff will stay good for several months, but I’m sure it will be long-gone way before then.

Fermented Food Side Effects

If you’ve ever tasted fermented foods, they’re pretty acidic-tasting. As such, make sure to eat them in small quantities. High-acid foods are known to damage your precious tooth enamel. And while I was saying how good ferm foods are for your digestive tract, they could very well cause stomach upset and even heartburn.[6] Then there is a matter of the astronomically high sodium content in most fermented food products at the store.

[Related Article: Is Sodium Bad for You? How Much of it Can You Eat Per Day?]

Again, this should only be concerning if you overdo it or have some kind of sensitivity to this particular food. At that point, all you have to do is cut back. And besides, most of these foods aren’t meant to be main dishes. No matter how much I like pickled cucumbers, you don’t see me filling my plate with them for dinner. I’m perfectly happy with one, maybe two of them tops.

Sauerkraut

Conclusion

It’s safe to say that fermented foods and the probiotics they contain are highly beneficial in a multitude of ways. However, you should still proceed with caution. This is why this isn’t just a health benefits post. You need to know the possible downsides a.k.a. side effects. By the way, “downsides” doesn’t mean you should stay away from these kind of foods altogether. In the health food world and beyond, it’s important to look at the whole picture. Eaten in moderation, fermented foods can be an excellent part of a balanced diet. Eat them in mass quantities daily and you’re in for some gastric distress. Same goes with probiotics.

What fermented foods do you eat? Or do you prefer to get your probiotics through a probiotic capsule? Personally, I do a bit of both.


Sources
1. Fermented Foods – A World Perspective
2. Guidelines for the Evaluation of Probiotics in Food
3. List of Probiotic Bacteria
4. Health and Nutritional Benefits from Lactic Acid Bacteria
5. Probiotics and Their Fermented Dood Products Are Beneficial for Health
6. The Harmful Effects of Fermented Foods

14 COMMENTS

  1. I think I’ll have to start finding a lot of fermented foods. Mr. Comfortable has had a hard time with his tummy since he started cancer treatments. Thank you for the great information!

    • 🙁 That is really rough on the digestive tract. I hope incorporating some fermented foods into his diet will help him out!

      And you’re welcome!

  2. I appreciate that you included recipes. Unfortunately, my body doesn’t tolerate fermented foods, but I appreciate your informative article. (I take probiotics in capsules and find the Raw line good).

    • I’m sorry to hear that, Lisa. :/ While one type of food may work for one person, it may not be optimal for another. But it’s great that you take probiotics. 😀

    • Thank you, Cornelia! 🙂 Which fermented food are you the most interested in trying? I know some of the ones I mentioned aren’t all too common, but luckily, there are a lot of great recipes online.

  3. Very well written article filled with quality information. People will greatly benefit from it as they implement the concepts into their lives.

    Like you, I combine foods and supplements. I am a BIG believer in combining various approaches to maximize the different benefits of different foods (as well as how they’re prepared.)

    People must remember, however, that quality foods are simply ONE COMPONENT necessary in HEALTHY LIVING. People must begin to incorporate ALL the various components (gradually to avoid being overwhelmed) including exercise, hydration, quality nutrition, stress reduction, socialization, quality sleep and chiropractic examination to ensure proper nervous system function to coordinate the body’s communication and to avoid (or slow down) degeneration.

    • As always, I appreciate the feedback Jonathan! Combining really is wise when it comes to probiotics, and many other areas of health.

      And you make a very important point. Eating healthy certainly is a crucial part of healthy living (keyword: part).

      One thing I have to watch out for is my stress levels. But I think that’s a dilemma most people face these days. Society is set up in such a way that promotes always being on-the-go.

      Thanks for sharing this information.

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