Why fermented foods aren’t for everyone
Why fermented foods aren’t for everyone
By Rebecca Coomes, The Healthy Gut
You’ve heard the news and read countless articles – fermented foods are the new thing for improving the health of your gut.
You may have tried adding kombucha, sauerkraut or kimchi into your diet but suffered from digestive discomfort afterwards.
If these foods are so good for us, why are they causing you pain and suffering?
Let’s take a step back and explore how our digestive system works and why these foods might be causing us problems.
The first entry point for food is the mouth, where we excrete saliva through our salivary glands. Saliva is basically made up of filtered blood with the red blood cells filtered out, while calcium, parts of our immune system and hormones are kept in this clear liquid that, amongst other things, helps us chew.
As we put food into our mouths, our salivary glands pump out saliva, aiding the first step in our digestion: mastication. When we chew properly we break up chunks of food, making it easier for our digestive system to handle it.
Our tongue not only provides taste sensory information to our brain to tell us if the food is good or bad, but at the root of the tongue the immune system really kicks up a gear. The lingual tonsils, or the bumps at the root of your tongue, analyse every thing that passes them. Immune cells are on the ready and investigate whether the substance is friend or foe, alerting the immune army if trouble is ahead.
Once we swallow, our food travels down our oesophagus, a muscular tube that contracts and expands in a wave-like motion. This helps move your food and liquid down to your stomach. It hooks a right turn into our stomach, passing through the lower oesophageal sphincter, which acts as a doorway between the oesophagus and the stomach and stops food and stomach juices from returning back up. Our stomach sits just under our heart and lungs and is much higher up than we often think it is. Stomach pains are generally digestive pains because we feel them lower down rather than in our tummy.
The stomach has strong defences in the form of the acids, enzymes and juices within it that help to break down food into a soft mush known as chyme, which then enters the small intestine.
When I studied biology at high school, I always found it ironic that it was called the small intestine, when it actually stretches out for somewhere between three and six metres. A hollow organ, it continues the digestion of the food, breaking it down into smaller particles. Our liver and pancreas secrete digestive juices that help break down the chyme into smaller molecules.
Our small intestine is covered in microscopic villi, which in turn are covered by microvilli, which catch our partially digested food as it comes their way. They help increase the surface area of our digestive tract, maximising our chance to digest and absorb vital nutrients. They also absorb the digested molecules, which then pass into the blood vessels headed for the liver, where they are screened before passing into the main circulatory system.
From here, what’s left enters the large intestine or colon, whose primary purpose is to break down the remaining particles and remove water from your waste product so it’s ready to be excreted as a stool.
The colon doesn’t have the same surface as the small intestine, so it relies on bacteria to break down the last of the particles for us. It is for this reason that the large intestine is home to most of our gut bacteria. Consider these numbers for a moment: the small intestine has around 100,000 bacteria per quarter of a teaspoon of content. In contrast, the large intestine has 20 billion bacteria per quarter of a teaspoon of content. No wonder gut bacteria are so important!
It takes around 16 hours for the large intestine to process a meal, leaving the small intestine the job of processing the next few meals that come its way. Much like the small intestine, any nutrients absorbed are first filtered through the liver and then onto the circulatory system.
At the end of this journey, the large intestine moves to the rectum and passes the meal out as faeces.
Given that our large intestine should be home to the majority of the bacteria in our digestive system, there are times when this bacteria migrates back up into the small intestine, and causes a condition known as Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO). SIBO can be disruptive and cause issues with the movement of your food along the digestive system, which can result in a range of symptoms. Some of the symptoms of SIBO include abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, gas and heartburn among many others.
When we eat fermented foods, we are adding additional bacteria into our system. In a healthy digestive system, this generally isn’t problematic. However, in a compromised system where there are already excessive bacteria living in the wrong place, this can cause an exacerbation of symptoms.
The digestive system doesn’t see your fermented food as good bacteria as such; it just recognises that more bacteria are entering. And just like unwelcome gate crashers at a party, these new bacteria can stick around, joining forces with the already unwelcome guests and cause you more discomfort.
So what should you do?
If you can’t tolerate fermented foods, the best thing to do is to eliminate them from your diet. There is a reason why your body is giving you symptoms, so you should listen to it. It doesn’t mean you won’t be able to eat them again in the future, but they may not be the best things for you right now. You may like to investigate whether it is likely that you have SIBO by taking a free online quiz (https://sibotest.com/quizzes/1) and seeing a practitioner for further testing and treatment if you do.
People with SIBO need to reduce the number of bacteria living in their small intestine before adding beneficial bacteria back in.
The best way to approach incorporating fermented food into your diet is to test small amounts at a time and give your body a chance to process it and provide you with any symptoms.
For instance, you can try adding one teaspoon of sauerkraut into your diet at one meal. Wait for two to three days and measure any symptoms that arise, such as bloating, heartburn, gas, headaches, muscle pain, jaw pain, moodiness, etc. If there are no symptoms, eat one teaspoon with another meal. Repeat the observations. If after several successful attempts you have not seen any symptoms arise, you may like to slowly increase the volume of the food. There are billions of bacteria in a teaspoon of fermented foods, so it may not be necessary to eat large volumes to experience the benefits.
If you are uncertain if fermented foods are right for you, speak to your health practitioner first. We are all unique and individual, with our own microbiome that has its own requirements. What works for one person may not work for the next, and even the healthiest of foods may not be suitable for you today.