Your digestive tract is probably the most underappreciated system of your body, often ignored until its screams of discontent become loud enough to grab your attention. By the time your gut reaches this degree of disgruntlement, the problems have usually been developing for months — or years — and are challenging to resolve. Instead of waiting for obvious signs of a problem, why not perform some regular “gut maintenance” using fermented foods that will lessen your chances of developing a problem in the first place?
Your gut is much more than a food processing tube — it houses about 85 percent of your immune system. This is in large part due to the 100 trillion bacteria that live there, both good and bad that can stimulate secretory IgA to nourish your immune response.
When your GI tract is not working well, a wide range of health problems can appear, including allergies and autoimmune diseases. If you suffer from any major illness, you simply will NOT be able to fully recuperate without healing and sealing your gut. Balancing the menagerie of microorganisms that occupy your GI tract is a key part of maintaining your immune health, which will be the focus of this article.
Your stomach is where digestion really gets rolling, with the introduction of more enzymes and a whole lot of acid. Fortunately, your stomach is uniquely designed for this process, as it is SO acidic. Its lining must actually regenerate at a feverish pace — just to keep up with the continuous digestion of itself! You require a brand new stomach lining every few days.
Fermented Foods Actually Protects You from Infections
A recent article in Scientific American explores an alternate explanation about how your stomach works. The “sieve hypothesis” suggests your stomach may operate as a sieve or filter, preventing some of the more harmful microbes from passing through to your small intestine. Evidence for this is not new. It comes from a 1948 study by Dr. Orla-Jensen, a retired professor from the Royal Danish Technical College — a study that has essentially been “lost” in the literature for more than 60 years.
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The professor argued that your stomach uses acid to kill pathogenic disease-causing bacteria, fungi, viruses, worms and protozoa, while allowing the more beneficial microbes (which are acid-tolerant) to pass through. If your stomach is unsuccessful at killing these pathogens, then they can dominate your intestines, damaging and eroding your intestinal walls and causing illness.
Your stomach generally becomes less acidic as you age, particularly after age 70. In his study, Orla-Jensen compared the gut bacteria of young people with that of healthy seniors, as well as with seniors suffering from dementia. He found that as people age, they have a greater proportion of pathogenic microbes to beneficial microbes in their intestinal tracts. This was particularly pronounced in seniors with dementia… which begs the question about whether dementia could actually be caused by an “intestinal infection.”
A study done at UC Davis found that E. coli and salmonella bacteria in mice produce fiber-like structures very similar to the inflammatory brain plaques seen in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Your brain is shaped by bacteria in your digestive tract. Bacteria in your gut actually control how your brain cells express specific genes. Other studies report that disturbed gut flora in seniors contributes to accelerated aging, frailty and premature death.
More research is needed in order to understand the exact relationship between dysbiosis and dementia. But at the very least, these studies underscore the importance of maintaining high levels of beneficial bacteria in your intestinal tract. In fact, this bacterial community may be in charge of your entire metabolism.
Unhappy Gut Bacteria May Make You Fat
Inflammation from bacterial endotoxins may be a factor helping to drive the obesity epidemic. Junk food causes nasty microbes to bloom and friendly bugs to decline, just as sugar and refined carbohydrates feed the bacteria in your mouth that are responsible for tooth decay. Sugar and processed foods make your “friendly” microbe community unfriendly — even downright hostile. Humans today have lost the microbial diversity that once kept us healthy.
When dysbiosis occurs, bacteria release noxious byproducts called endotoxins. Endotoxins increase the permeability of your gut wall (“leaky gut syndrome”) and make their way into your bloodstream, triggering system wide inflammation. It’s been shown that the hypothalamus, which houses the appetite control center of your brain, is often inflamed and damaged in obese individuals. When inflammation affects your brain, and especially your hypothalamus, your entire metabolism changes.
So, here’s how it goes…
When you consume junk foods, certain bacteria flourish and produce endotoxins, which your immune system detects and, interpreting these endotoxins as an attack, responds with inflammation. Your body changes its metabolism to redirect energy for “battle.” The result is overproduction of insulin, increased fat storage, dampening of your appetite control signals, and eventually obesity. The best way to reverse this inflammation and restore a healthy metabolism is by eliminating excess sugar and processed food, and adding more friendly, beneficial bacteria from naturally fermented foods.
Cultured Vegetables Are the Ultimate Superfood
One of the leading experts in the optimization of intestinal flora is Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, who developed the GAPS nutritional protocol (Gut and Psychology Syndrome/Gut and Physiology Syndrome). For decades, Dr. McBride has successfully treated adults and children with severe illnesses, including autism, epilepsy, mood disorders, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, celiac disease and many more, with her GAPS protocol.
A key component of the GAPS program is the daily consumption of fermented foods. Fermented foods are potent chelators (detoxifiers) and contain much higher levels of probiotics than probiotic supplements, making them ideal for optimizing your gut flora. In addition to helping break down and eliminate heavy metals and other toxins from your body, beneficial gut bacteria perform a number of surprising functions, including:
- Mineral absorption, and producing nutrients such as B vitamins and vitamin K2 (vitamin K2 and vitamin D are necessary for integrating calcium into your bones and keeping it out of your arteries, thereby reducing your risk for coronary artery disease and stroke)
- Preventing obesity and diabetes, and regulating dietary fat absorption
- Lowering your risk for cancer
- Improving your mood and mental health
- Preventing acne
Now that you understand the importance of optimizing your GI flora, let’s take a look at just how easy it is to accomplish this task by making fermented vegetables at home, in your own kitchen. If you aren’t accustomed to these foods, you may have to work them into your diet gradually. Many folks really enjoy the taste of fermented vegetables, which really have a pleasantly salty-tart flavor.
According to nutritional consultant Caroline Barringer, just one quarter to one half cup of fermented veggies, eaten with one to three meals per day, can have a dramatically beneficial impact on your health.
If you’ve never eaten fermented foods, too large a portion may provoke a healing crisis, which occurs when the probiotics kill off pathogens in your gut. When these pathogens die, they release potent toxins. If you are new to fermented foods, you should introduce them gradually, beginning with as little as one teaspoon of sauerkraut with a meal. Observe your reactions for a couple of days before proceeding with another small portion, and increase your dose gradually, as tolerated.
Realize that many food preferences develop very early in life, so the sooner you can introduce fermented vegetables to your child, the better. Traces of the flavors of the foods mothers eat are perceptible in their breast milk and amniotic fluid. Babies whose mothers eat things like garlic or broccoli while pregnant tend to be more likely to enjoy these foods later in life.