Are you one of the 60 million Americans bothered by digestive troubles? You may be missing an important component of a tummy-taming diet: fermented foods.

Fermented foods have been a part of the human diet almost as long as the act of eating. Early fermentation was a surprise – bold was the first human who decided to taste seemingly spoiled food and find he wasn’t dead from doing so. Fermentation involves harnessing the microbes – bacteria and yeasts – that occupy the world around us to transform fresh foods into something new. Beer is a preserved grain. Cheese likely resulted from the storage of milk in sheep stomach – harnessing both the microbes and the natural enzymes found there. Fermentation wasn’t a health fad – it was a new method of food preservation.

It is Ilya Metchnikoff who is credited with turning our scientific lens on the potential health benefits of fermented foods. In 1907 he hypothesized that Bulgarians’ longevity might have been the result of consuming lactic acid bacteria, found in the yogurt that was a dietary staple. And yet, Bulgarians are not the only citizens to rely upon fermented foods. In Korea, diners include kimchi, a pungent, spicy fermented vegetable mix at each meal. Northern Eurasians liked a little yeast with their bacteria; the result being a fermented tea called kombucha and fermented milk known as kefir. Indonesians ferment their soybeans into a firm, sliceable block called tempeh and what would German sausage be without a hefty dose of sauerkraut?

So why is this traditional method of preservation so critical for modern health? Because we are currently at war with bacteria – and our attempts to sterilize our world have left our own resident bacteria as refugees. The approximately 100 trillion bacteria that call our body home are as critical to our health as our heart or our liver and yet, for the last 50 years, we have been doing our best to eliminate them. Just how do we wage this war? By using anti-bacterial products in our homes and on our bodies. By living in concrete jungles where fresh air and proximity to dirt is scarce. And by eating foodstuffs created in sterile manufacturing plants or doused in anti-microbial agents like bleach. Now, we finally see that this sterilization fetish is wreaking havoc with our digestive health.

Our lower digestive tract is home to the vast majority of those 100 trillion bugs, where they interact with our digestive, immune and nervous systems in a complex dance that we are only just beginning to understand. In order for this relationship to be harmonious, our bacterial population needs to be high enough and diverse enough to withstand assault. A single course of antibiotics is all it takes to challenge that diversity permanently. The fallout? Well, much of it revolves around the integrity of the digestive tract lining itself and the inflammation that can be triggered at the gut level.

When poor diet, stress or environmental chemicals kill off beneficial bacteria, more harmful strains have the opportunity to take up a home in your digestive tract. In response, your immune system launches an attack, known as inflammation, to try and manage the invasion.  If your bacterial community isn’t resilient enough to combat these bad bugs, this inflammatory response damages the gut further and inflammation’s effects may filter throughout your entire system.

The horrendous gas and bloating of irritable bowel syndrome? Bacteria eating undigested foodstuff produces the gas. Those bacteria can also make the nervous system hyperactive so gas within the gut feels like agony.

Constipated? A certain type of bacteria, called methanogens, are more common in the chronically constipated than those with healthy elimination.

The inflammation and diarrhea of ulcerative colitis? Worse when the bacterial balance is off.

One of the easiest ways to bring the digestive tract into balance is to include a hefty dose – 1 to 2 servings daily – of fermented foods into your eating plan. You also need to eat a diet that fosters the growth of better bugs.

  • Eat fewer added sugars and less fat, particularly animal fats.
  • Eat plenty of plant foods like vegetables and beans, as all that fibre is food for good bacteria.
  • If you have a serious condition such as ulcerative colitis, you may need to up the ante with a clinical strength probiotic. But be warned: the vast majority of probiotics on the market will do less for your health than a cup of yogurt. If you are going to go the supplemental route, look for a probiotic that has double-blinded human clinical trials.

If you want to restore harmony to a stormy digestive system, get cultured. It is a simple, tasty way to tame your tummy troubles.

Yogurt: Look for plain, preferably organic, yogurt that confirms ‘live, probiotic’ cultures on its label. Typically, a probiotic yogurt will contain one billion live cultures per 3/4 cup serving.

Kefir: True kefir contains beneficial yeasts in addition to bacteria and should have a natural fizziness to it. Many commercial kefirs are little more than drinkable yogurt. Kefir can have as many as 50 billion live cultures per 1/4 cup serving.

Kombucha: This fizzy tea is a natural, low calorie alternative to soda pop. Ensure it says raw or unpasteurized on the label. Or try making it yourself at home; you can purchase a SCOBY (kombucha starter) from companies that make kombucha.

Kimchi: There are as many types of kimchi as there are kimchi makers. This garlicky, chili-spiked fermented veggie goes well with ramen or as a novel topping for a Korean inspired taco.

Try my kimchi recipe from Un-Junk Your Diet!

Sauerkraut: Many modern varieties are pickled with vinegar, as opposed to being lacto-fermented. Look for fermented sauerkrauts in the refrigerated section of the health food store, and look for the word ‘raw’ on the label.

Miso: A salty paste common in Japanese cuisine, it is an excellent base for soups, salad dressings and sauces. White, or Shiro, miso is the mildest.

Tempeh: A flavourful alternative to tofu, tempeh can be steamed and crumbled into a taco or chili filling, or try it grilled in place of burgers.

Natto: Not for the faint of heart, this fermented soy bean condiment is a unique source of vitamin K2 thanks to its fermentation.

Fermented Foods Warning: Fermented foods are not to be consumed by individuals with compromised immune systems, such as those undergoing immunosuppressive drugs. Pregnant women should stick with commercially fermented foods, such as yogurt and kefir.