One of the biggest new topics in health and wellness over the last decade has centered around the subject of probiotics and a healthy microbiome. I personally find this subject exciting and facinating because it a crossroads where medical science and traditional customs overlap.
A microbiome refers to the "community of microorganisms" that resides in and on all multi-cellular organisms. A microbiome is made up of bacteria, archaea, protists, fungi and viruses that maybe commensal, symbiotic or pathogenic individually but collectively establish a sybiotic relationship with the host to maintain homeostatis - a fancy way of saying "in balance". Recent studies have shown the microbiome plays a significant role in maintaining hormonal, metabolic and immunological homeostasis (balance) in the body. Now doctors are linking damaged microbiomes with conditions including inflamatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, type II diabetes, immune cell development and maturation, allergies and even autism.
While the microbiome is generally stable within individuals over time, the composition can be altered due to external factors - one major factor being antibiotic use. Antibiotics have a profound effects on the microbiome. We know overuse of antibiotics leads to the development of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria that can hide in our gut. Now there is a growing body of compelling evidence showing the microbiome undergoes major alterations in terms of which individual microorganisms remain and what percentage of the microbiome they comprise.
Although the particular affects of repeated antibiotic use vary among individuals, it is clear that some microbiomes do not recover - even months after treatment. In general there is a long-term decrease in bacterial diversity in the gut, and this altered microbiome composition reduces the the micorbiome's ability to resist colonization of foreign microbes. The balance of commensal, symbiotic and pathogenic organisms is lost giving way to permanent changes to the structure of the microbiome. Further studies have been able to identified specific differences in microbiome composition in patients according to specific ailments. For example, early colonization with lactobacillus lpp is correlated with a decrease in allergy symptoms.
The term probiotic is often used to refer to dietary supplements consisting of "live microorganisms" for the purpose of adding healthy microbes to your microbiome. While probiotic supplements have flooded the shelves of health food stores recently, probiotic-rich foods are actually nothing new. Humans have a long history of preparing fermented, probiotic rich foods if you look closely at traditional methods of food preparation.
Most folks are familiar with fermented dairy products like yogurt, kefir, sour cream, and cheese. When prepared traditionally, these foods each employ a specific microorganism to ferment milk and are thus loaded with beneficial microorganisms. Unfortunately manufactured dairy products often use so many additives to sweeten and augment texture that store bought versions often become a nutritional wash out.
Pickled foods like kimchi, sour kraut, and pickles made without vinegar are also probiotic foods - typically using lactobacillus, a ubiquitous anaerobic bacteria to preserve vegetables. It creates that signature pickled sour flavor without added vinegar. Again, efforts to standardize flavor and create shelf stability often circumvent the fermentation process thus eliminating the probiotic benefits of these foods when purchased in stores.
Even sour dough breads are probiotic, using a "proof" or a live colony of microorganisms to raise the dough rather than yeast. Of course preservatives and long times in transportation and on store shelves limits the probiotic benefits of store bought versions of these foods. In my opinion, one of the biggest factors why European countries who maintain the practice of eating freshly baked sour dough breads do not see the issues with gluten sensitivity is because their bread is fresh and still probiotic rich. In the US, most bread for sale is old, preserved, and essentially "dead".
Fermented probiotic rich drinks have been around throughout history - beer, wine, liquors, ginger brew, root beer, kombucha, and tabicos are all beverages that utilize fermentation to produce flavor, alcohol and bubbles. Of course alcohol which comes from a longer fermentation process, will generally reduce the health benefits from alcoholic probiotic beverages. Traditionally made ginger brew and root beer were fermented spiced and herbed drinks, carbonated by the gases produced in the fermentation process. Modern soft drinks are not fermented - instead they use carbonic acid to create bubbles, cutting out the probiotics and a increasing the acidity of the beverage.
Miso, natto, sake and amazake are traditional Japanese fermented foods that use Koji (aspergillum oryzae) as the fermenting agent. While Japanese producers are much better at preserving the probiotic benefits of their traditionally fermented foods, it is crucial to pay attention to temperature when preparing them. For example, miso should not be made in water hotter than 195 degrees - or you will kill the koji with heat. This means miso soup should never be made with boiling water, which is at least 212 degrees.
It is my strong personal belief that probiotic foods are better than probiotic supplements. After all, if the point is to populate your gut with live microorganisms, how alive can they really be after months in a refrigerator or on a store shelf? Unfortunately these days, most city and suburban folks have lost the kitchen skills to prepare and maintain probiotic rich fermented foods. While not overly complex, fermenting foods does require some knowledge and practiced skill. But with a little practice, you can be making your own versions of probiotic rich foods to maintain a healthy microbiome.
In an effort to spread and maintain the knowledge and skills around fermenting foods, I will begin to share my experiences with making probiotic rich, traditionally prepared foods with you. I hope to inspire your love to probiotic foods too!
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