What if I told you that you are just as much bacteria as you are human cells? Trillions of species of bacteria live either on us or in us. These critters are essential to life and we form a symbiotic relationship with them. They have so many functions that without them we simply would not survive. They digest our food, they protect against disease, they educate our immune system, they make nutrients like b-vitamins and vitamin k and they augment the nutritional value of the food we eat. In short, they are a veritable sweatshop of activity working around the clock to keep us healthy.
Begins at birth
Colonization of our gut (where around 70% of bacteria is found) begins at birth as an infant is exposed to it’s mother’s gut flora passing through the birth canal. This develops, and within a year of life stabilizes and starts to resemble that of an adult. However, throughout the course of our lives many factors can affect the quality and composition of this gut flora. Antibiotic use decimates it, as does stress, the pill, gastrointestinal disorders, cigarettes, processed foods and alcohol – typical Western lifestyle anyone?
Safety in numbers
Without healthy gut flora, our immune system is compromised, our nutrient intake is compromised, vitamin production is compromised and, well, frankly our health and vitality is severely compromised. As with all things in life there are good and bad and the same is true of bacteria, there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ strains, in a healthy gut there may be parasites and yeasts but the good bacteria keep them in check, its when this good bacteria is wiped out that we can run into problems, the bad guys get a foot hold and chaos and disease ensues.
So you can see that maintaining a balance of healthy gut flora is a pretty smart thing to do. Apart from avoiding the diet lifestyle pitfalls outlined above what else can we do daily to feed this wonderful ecosystem? Include some fermented foods in our diet that’s what. I know the term ‘fermented food’ is worlds apart from a M&S food ad with its seduction and superlatives but I promise you in addition to being delicious, they pack a powerful health enhancing punch.
Chances are you have eaten fermented foods lots of times before – live yogurt? Cheese? Beer? Wine?! Ok, so the booze isn’t going to have the probiotics but you get my point. Fermented foods are foods that have been through a process of lacto fermentation in which natural bacteria feed on the sugar and starch in the food creating lactic acid. This process preserves the food and creates beneficial enzymes, b-vitamins and of course probiotics. These probiotics introduce beneficial bacteria into your digestive system. Natural fermentation of foods has also been shown to preserve nutrients in food and break the food down to a more digestible form. This, along with the plethora of probiotics created during the fermentation process can improve health, digestion and your immune function.
Make your own
Fermented foods are cheap, easy to prepare and they last for ages as the fermentation preserves them. In fact fermentation was the original method of preserving food, long long before the arrival of fridges and freezers! So let’s start off with a simple kimchi, a fantastic accompaniment to fish, meat, chicken, in a salad, whatever takes your fancy. Kimchi is a traditional Korean side dish of vegetables with a variety of seasonings. In traditional preparation Kimchi fermented underground in jars for months at a time (put the shovel away you don’t need to dig up your garden). It is Korea’s national dish, and there are hundreds of varieties. I love Dearbhla Reynold’s version here. Enjoy!