Your digestive tract contains a complex ecosystem of life that’s home to trillions of microbes that are made up of thousands of species. This ecosystem, also called a microbiome or gut flora, plays a significant role in your health and it is important to keep it as healthy as possible. Fermented foods play a significant role in achieving and maintaining a healthy digestive flora.
A Healthy Terrain
The first step in creating a healthy ecosystem in your digestive tract is to build a healthy gut lining which acts as the terrain for the microbes to live on. The microbes find it very difficult to survive or even have much effect without a healthy terrain to support them. Often this terrain is suboptimal in terms of space and integrity due to poor diet, stress, nutrient deficiency and an overall lack of health.
The important nutrients required for a healthy terrain include amino acids such as glutamine and proline, peptides, nucleotides, short chain fatty acids such as butyrate, and various vitamins and minerals. Fermented foods can provide all of these nutrients in pre-digested forms, ready to be utilised. The best fermented foods to achieve a healthy terrain should contain a good source of protein such as whey, milk and soy.
Inoculation – Provide the Microbes
Of course, there needs to be a source of microbes that inhabit your digestive tract. There are 2 approaches to this. One way is to provide billions of microbes in a capsule with the hope that some will survive the journey. This approach has the potential to affect the natural balance and diversity of existing species in your digestive tract. Despite marketing claims by various companies, the accepted “therapeutic level” of microbes that are required, and proven by research, is only 1 million. That’s nowhere near 1 billion. The second approach is to provide a natural amount of microbes delivered within a food matrix – the way in which our ancestors built a healthy digestive ecosystem.
Another great benefit of consuming fermented foods as a source of microbes is that the deeper, natural fermentation process creates a protective membrane for the microbes called kefiran. Kefir style fermented foods are shown to have an 80% microbial survival rate compared to about 20 percent or less via artificial means found in regular probiotic supplements.
Colonisation and Growth
It is not enough to simply provide microbes to the digestive tract. They need to colonise and thrive in order to contribute to a healthy ecosystem. This is a far more complex process than we previously thought. Signaling molecules such as quorum sensing, a nourishing source of nutrition, the correct pH and many other factors are necessary to initiate multiplication of the microbes. If optimal conditions are provided, microbes can divide every 20 minutes – with the potential to become several billions within just hours. If a suboptimal environment is provided, the speed at which the microbes divide will slow down or cause the microbes to hibernate without ever having an action on the gut flora whatsoever.
The most obvious solution again is fermented foods where the naturally occurring microbes (already having several different strains present) have created a natural environment and habitat to be able colonise and grow.
Diversity – But the Right Diversity
As with all ecosystems, it is important to have a diverse balance of life to maintain its health and function. There are thousands of species of microbes that naturally inhabit our digestive tracts including bacteria, yeasts and other forms. They all should live in harmony without one species dominating another. Although it is useful to provide a variety of species, the most suitable combination needs to include species from different genera and include beneficial yeasts. This is one reason why kefir and kombucha were so highly regarded by traditional cultures as they include such a vast diversity of beneficial microbes. There is also the obvious point that a variety of species that have been fermented together have already adapted and become acquainted with each other as one mini ecosystem.
To maintain a healthy digestive flora we need a balanced support that only nature can provide. Throughout evolution, about 8-15% of native cultural diet was made up of fermented foods. Fermented foods were the ‘symbiotics’ of our ancestors and allowed us to create and maintain the most optimal digestive flora that modern cultures can only aspire to. Not only do fermented foods provide the terrain, the microbes, the environment and everything else mentioned above, they also stimulate good digestive flow through their taste and provide many enzymes created during fermentation. Fermented foods also support liver and pancreatic health. The benefits go on and on. There is absolutely no other food source that has such a wide effect on digestive processes and the optimal maintenance of your gut flora.
During fermentation the microbes are actively creating their own natural ecosystem which literally contains everything the microbes need to survive and thrive. Using a wide range of microbes including bacteria and yeasts in a traditional deep fermentation, the end result is the most optimal ecosystem to create a symbiosis with our own ecosystem. The strongest evidence in both traditional cultures and in modern research appears to be in fermented soy foods such as miso, tempeh and natto. It is not a coincidence that indigenous Asian cultures on a traditional diet appear to have the most diverse digestive microflora and live long and healthy lives with limited digestive complaints.
Find out more about Living Alchemy’s (Your Flora) range of Living Culture Symbiotics, a fermented food supplement using a traditional Kefir-kombucha style fermentation made with 35 naturally occurring strains.