Gut Health and the Benefits of Traditional Fermented Foods

Filed Under: Digestive Health, Gut Bacteria & Probiotics, Fermented Foods, Probiotics
Last Reviewed 09/03/2015

three bowls of kimchi

Learn about the probiotic benefits of traditional fermented foods

If you have digestive problems, it will be almost impossible to permanently eliminate them unless you improve the balance between the beneficial and disease-causing bacteria that exist naturally in your gut. One of the most effective ways to do this is by eating traditional fermented foods rich in lactic acid–producing bacteria. These bacteria are what naturally make milk products go sour and vegetables ferment.

Lactic acid–producing bacteria are common in probiotic supplements—which is why traditional fermented foods are also known as probiotic foods. Previously I’ve explained that lactic acid–producing bacteria help acidify the digestive tract, creating an environment conducive to the growth of all healthy bacteria. However, the benefits of fermented foods don’t stop there.

Benefits of Fermented Foods

There are four important health benefits of traditional fermented foods that clearly explain why they are so crucial to maintaining a healthy gut:

Benefit #1: Traditional fermented foods help balance the production of stomach acid. Fermented foods have the unique ability to ease digestive discomfort related to having either too much or too little stomach acid. When the production of hydrochloric acid by the stomach is low, fermented foods help increase the acidity of gastric juices. On the other hand, when the stomach produces too much acid, fermented foods help protect the stomach and intestinal lining.

See a list of all articles about Gut Bacteria in the Gut Bacteria and Probiotics Index

As we age, our production of the digestive enzymes and juices required for proper digestion begin to decrease. Eating traditional fermented foods like sauerkraut, buttermilk, and pickled vegetables can help make up for this loss. The key is to eat a small portion once or twice daily with meals.

Benefit #2: Traditional fermented foods help the body produce acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that facilitates the transmission of nerve impulses. Within the context of digestion, it helps increase the movement of the bowel, and can help reduce constipation. It also helps improve the release of digestive juices and enzymes from the stomach, the pancreas, and the gallbladder. So by helping your body produce acetylcholine, fermented foods act as potent digestive aids.

Benefit #3: Traditional fermented foods are beneficial for people with diabetes. In addition to improving pancreatic function, which is of great benefit to diabetics, the carbohydrates in lactic acid–fermented foods have been broken down or "pre-digested." As a result, they do not place an extra burden on the pancreas, unlike ordinary carbohydrates.

Benefit #4: Traditional fermented foods produce numerous unknown compounds that destroy and inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria. Many pathogenic forms of bacteria are sensitive to acidic environments. This is true of both cholera and typhoid. In the early 1950s, during an epidemic of typhoid fever in Europe, reports emerged showing that fresh sauerkraut was an effective agent for killing the bacteria. More recently, German scientists were working with a strain of lactic acid bacteria found in sourdough bread, and discovered that it seemed to be more effective than other strains at killing microbes. In early lab results, it quickly eliminated the super-bugs currently resistant to most antibiotics.

The concept of using naturally occurring "bugs" to eliminate harmful bacteria is an idea that seems to be gaining speed, although it's still baffling to me why many conventional doctors have yet to fully grasp or accept this concept. Obviously, the pharmaceutical companies stand to make a lot more money by selling antibiotics and other medications than by recommending a daily dose of fermented cabbage.

Fermented Foods Used as Medicine Throughout History

Sour milk products and lactic acid–fermented foods have been dietary staples for thousands of years. Early writings show that Chinese workers ate acid-fermented vegetables while building the Great Wall of China. The Japanese have routinely served a small serving of pickled vegetable with their meals. Centuries ago, the Koreans developed kimchi by acid-fermenting cabbage and other vegetables.

In fact, lactic acid-fermented cabbage has been revered as one of the most beneficial healing agents since early humans.

Before Christ, the Greeks wrote about the health benefits of fermented cabbage. The Romans used sauerkraut to treat and prevent intestinal infections. Captain Cook used sauerkraut and lime juice to prevent scurvy on his three-year journey around the world. Throughout Europe, Russia, and the Balkans, sauerkraut and other lactic acid-fermented foods (kefir, yogurt, buttermilk, kapusta, kvass, borscht, etc.) have become entrenched in the diet after centuries of use. Many African cultures still routinely use lactic acid-fermentation as a way of preserving gruels made from corn and sorghum. Even the people of India use a food paste made from the juice of sauerkraut. (Discover a great recipe for homemade sauerkraut.)

Modern Society Is Losing Fermented Foods

Unfortunately, over the past century many probiotic foods have fallen from favor due to changes in the way we now preserve foods, particularly vegetables.

When fresh vegetables weren’t as readily available throughout the year, they were often preserved through fermentation. Nowadays, thanks to improved transportation and storage, we can buy various vegetables all year around; and when it comes to preserving vegetables, freezing and canning have become the methods of choice. These techniques are convenient and help retain vitamin content, but they provide little benefit in terms of digestive health compared to fermentation.

Read More About Gut Bacteria and Digestive Health

Gut Bacteria and Probiotics Article Index
See a full list of articles by Dr. Williams about gut flora, probiotics, and the microbiome. Read more
Traditional Fermented Foods That Boost Digestive Health
Learn which traditional fermented foods have the most gut health benefits. Read more
Tips and Tools for Making Your Own Fermented Foods
Learn why store-bought fermented foods don’t deliver as many benefits as they often promise, as well as Dr. Williams’ recommended tools for making your own fermented milk-products and vegetables. Read more
How to Restore and Improve Gut Bacteria
Learn three strategies for restoring your gut health by improving the microflora residing there. Read more


DISCLAIMER: The content of is offered on an informational basis only, and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the guidance of a qualified health provider before making any adjustment to a medication or treatment you are currently using, and/or starting any new medication or treatment. All recommendations are "generally informational" and not specifically applicable to any individual's medical problems, concerns and/or needs.

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