When you think of healthy food, fermented foods may not be top of mind. But next time you’re grocery shopping, consider adding them to your cart as they’re some of the healthiest foods you can eat for gut function and overall health. Foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, miso, kombucha, natto, sourdough bread — and even pickles — can “improve digestion, strengthen the immune system, boost heart health, and support the nervous system,” says Katie Cavuto, MS, RD, Executive Chef for Saladworks.

Published in the Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition found fermented foods provide “anti-oxidant, anti-microbial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, and anti-atherosclerotic (heart-protective) activity.”

Fermented foods are an excellent source of beneficial bacteria that support gut health with a full-body effect. Trillions of bacteria live in your intestines (some good, some bad), and the healthy ones love fermented foods. Trista Best, RD, a registered dietitian with Balance One Supplements, explains, “The benefits of fermented foods occur mainly from the bacteria formed during the fermentation process, which gives them a probiotic effect in the body. This enables fermented foods to aid in digestive health, actively repopulating your gut with healthy bacteria.”

Translation? Eating more good bacteria from fermented foods will allow the good bacteria to proliferate and the harmful bacteria to get killed off—resulting in better health.

If you’re keen on optimizing your health, here are six health benefits of adding more fermented foods to your diet.

The 6 Health Benefits of Eating More Fermented Foods

1. Fermented Foods Improve Brain and Mental Health

“Fermented foods can boost your brain health and mental health through their probiotic action in the body,” explains Best. This is known as the ‘gut-brain connection,’ a powerful line of communication in the body that links intestinal function with your brain's emotional and cognitive centers. A 2011 study found beneficial gut microbes from fermented foods can boost your mood and help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression, and the evidence continues to grow.

The communication between the gut and the brain occurs via important chemicals called neurotransmitters. The rock star of neurotransmitters is serotonin. Serotonin is a mood stabilizer and can impact mental health (90 percent of serotonin is located in the gut). Eating various fermented foods will supply your gut microbiome with plenty of healthy bacteria to boost your brain and mental health.

2. Fermented Foods Help Maintain A Healthy Balance of Gut Bacteria

Chef Cavuto tells The Beet, “The healthy bacteria in fermented foods can help maintain a healthy bacterial balance in the gut, thus promoting healthy digestion and supporting other body systems like the nervous system and immune system.” A bacterial imbalance in your gut is called dysbiosis, which has many negative health consequences. Research demonstrates that an imbalanced microbiota is linked to chronic diseases like obesity, asthma, and inflammatory bowel disease. Including a variety of fermented foods in your diet will help ensure a well-balanced microbiome and help prevent disease.

3. Fermented Foods Help Your Body Produce Essential Nutrients

You can thank fermented foods for delivering the beneficial bacteria that help your body synthesize vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, and K. B-vitamins are critical for overall health and wellbeing, including providing energy, immune support and preventing neurocognitive disorders. According to a 2014 study published in The Journal of Scientific Research, the fermentation process can also increase the food's vitamin content. In addition, the researchers found that eating fermented foods helps us better absorb nutrients.

4. Fermented Foods Help Battle Disease

The Journal of Scientific Research study also found fermented foods “offer tremendous potential for reducing the risk of various diseases worldwide.” This is due to antioxidants — chemical compounds that are abundant in fermented foods and help protect your body from free radical damage and oxidative stress. Fermentation has been found to increase food’s antioxidant activity, thereby strengthening its ability to help fight and prevent disease.

5. Fermented Foods Help With Digestion

Fermented foods' bacteria help break down complex carbohydrates to provide long-lasting, sustainable energy reveals recent research published in Plos Biology. Also, the bacteria produce biologically active enzymes that help break down and digest protein. In addition, fermented foods tend to be high in fiber, a vital nutrient for digestion and gut health. “A healthy gut keeps the digestive process working smoothly. This prevents free radical and toxin build-up in the body, which are known to cause many acute and chronic illnesses,” explains Best.

The probiotics found in fermented foods can also reduce many gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, including bloating, diarrhea and constipation. “Many fermented foods, like kimchi and sauerkraut, are made with cruciferous vegetables high in fiber. As a result, the fermentation process helps to make these foods easier to digest,” says Cavuto.

A note on eating too many fermented foods: If you’re not used to eating fermented foods, introduce them slowly into your diet. Their high fiber content can cause gas, bloating, and GI distress as they begin producing beneficial bacteria in your gut. Best advises, “For most of the population, eating fermented foods daily is healthy. However, each person will need to find their individual tolerance to determine how much they can eat without experiencing negative side effects.”

6. Fermented Foods Help Repair Gut Damage From Antibiotics

Anyone who’s taken antibiotics knows they can wreak havoc on gut health. Antibiotics annihilate good and bad bacteria in your gut, resulting in digestive issues. Fortunately, you can address your digestion problems without relying on other medications or over-the-counter remedies. A 2015 study shows fermented foods can repair the damage done to gut bacteria by antibiotics.

Bottom Line: Fermented foods have many health benefits, and you should eat them daily.

Fermented foods include sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, miso, kombucha, natto, sourdough bread, and pickles. They’re high in fiber and contain beneficial bacteria that can improve mental health, gut health, and digestion and help ward off chronic disease. Include a variety of them in your diet for optimal health benefits.

For more great expert advice, visit The Beet's Health & Nutrition articles. 

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