The Magical Power of Fermented Foods
By Terri L. Saunders
Most of us are familiar with the concept of how important it is for our planet to have a balanced ecosystem in order to perpetuate itself, where each species contributes to the life of another in an environment that supports healthy growth and vitality. At the present time, it appears that Earth's ecosystem is at risk of deteriorating at an alarming rate, unless we can change this course of events.
Just like the planet that we live on, we too have an ecosystem inside our bodies that supports our growth and vitality, and just like the Earth's, our inner world is also at risk, as evidenced by the tremendous increase in infectious disease, degenerative conditions and autoimmune disorders. Cancer, Alzheimer's, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, allergies, chronic fatigue, candidiasis, fibromyalgia, and depression are affecting adults and children alike. What's even more significant is the tremendous increase in cases of autism, afflicting over 1 million American children in the past five years and more in England, Australia and Canada that we know of. In California, one out of every 125 children is born autistic. Vaccines have been largely blamed for this increase; however, the problem begins even before birth.
Why are these problems unique to modern society, and what did our ancestors know that enabled them to live their lives free of these ailments? The answer may lie in that inner world struggling to survive inside of us.
Before birth, a baby grows in the sterile environment of its mother's womb. Just before delivery, the mother's cervix dilates about 2 cm, which allows bacteria from the birth canal to enter the amniotic fluid in the womb. The baby drinks this fluid and is inoculated with the bacteria. A healthy mother's birth canal is filled with beneficial bacteria or microflora such as lactobacillus and bifidus. These healthful bacteria are known as probiotics and form the foundation for a healthy immune system. Probiotic means "for life," in contrast to antibiotic, which means "against life." As the baby travels through the birth canal he picks up more of the bacteria there until he exits into the outer world.
In truth, most mothers no longer have the beneficial microflora living inside of them, so they cannot give it to their babies. Approximately 85 percent of pregnant women now have pathogenic bacteria inside their birth canal instead of the healthful bacteria their baby needs for protection.
Once the baby is born, if he is nursed, the colostrum secreted by his mother's breasts before her milk comes in further enhances his immunity. The colostrum is teeming with immune-enhancing antibodies, proteins, peptides and transfer factor that enter the baby's body and are immediately absorbed through the baby's now-permeable intestines to allow this event to occur. For the first six hours the colostrum that is produced contains no sugar, but then the baby's gut seals up and the colostrum becomes sweet with sugar. The sugar feeds the microflora and causes a bed of mucus to form on the lining of the intestines, which allows the beneficial microflora to adhere to it. As the baby continues to nurse he develops a fully functioning ecosystem, which establishes a healthy immune system early in life. This is the way nature vaccinates our children.
Currently, because of the presence of pathogenic bacteria in the mother's birth canal which may or may not cause a problem, doctors are recommending that mothers be hooked up to an antibiotic I.V. drip as soon as they begin labor. Since antibiotics do not discriminate between harmful bacteria and beneficial bacteria, this practice essentially destroys the baby's fragile ecosystem and young immune system.
In an ideal world, as the child grows he would be fed foods that are rich in probiotics, which would continue to protect him from harmful pathogens normally encountered in daily life. These foods are largely missing from the modern American diet, which is unfortunate since beneficial microflora make up 85 percent of our immune system.
In her groundbreaking book "The Body Ecology Diet," Donna Gates, a pioneer in the field of nutrition and health, refers to these microflora as alchemists and highly intelligent beings that communicate at all times with our enteric nervous system, located in the intestines and commonly referred to as the second brain. In fact, she maintains that it is this second brain that is ultimately controlling the primary brain in our head. Recent scientific research has discovered that the same receptor sites for neuropeptides and other brain chemicals that exist in our brain are also present in our gut. Of course, we all can relate to that "gut feeling" we have when we are intuitively guided to do something.
The brain in our head needs nutrients to function such as high-quality proteins, glucose, and essential fats, which all come from the intestines. Neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which help us to relax, are created from these nutrients in the intestines and transported up to the brain. The microflora play an essential role in the production of these substances. They help to break down our food so we can digest it and actually produce all of the B vitamins, vitamin K, and short-chain fatty acids that are essential for immune and nervous-system function. They assist in alkalizing our blood by pulling out minerals from the food that nourishes our cells, and create an environment where harmful bacteria, viruses, yeasts and parasites cannot thrive. They eat excess sugars from our diet so they cannot harm us, and effectively eliminate sugar cravings. If we are deficient in a particular mineral such as calcium, the microflora can change other minerals such as silica into the calcium that we need. They can even transform harmful substances such as the toxic byproducts of undigested proteins, chemicals and heavy metals into substances that are useful to the body, hence their reputation as alchemists.
Without this healthy ecosystem in place we become malnourished, toxic, emotionally stressed and sick. Donna Gates feels that autism is essentially a "gut-brain" disorder and that the only way to heal these children is to re-establish a healthy inner ecosystem. Her BEDROK diet, the Body Ecology Diet for Recovering Our Kids, has a protocol for healing autism that is very successful. As adults, we can also restore our inner world and heal disease, slow down aging, and become healthier and happier fully functioning human beings.
In order to do this we need only to look at the way our ancestors ate and prepared their foods. Traditional cultures from around the world all incorporated probiotic-rich foods into their diets. Before modern technology gave us refrigeration and even in underdeveloped countries today, the only way to preserve food was to ferment it. As it turns out, these cultured or fermented foods contained the life-giving microflora that nourished and protected them through the ages.
Nutritionist Sally Fallon reveals in her fascinating book, "Nourishing Traditions," the incredible health benefits of ancient foods and inspires us to return to this way of eating to recover our health. In days of old, crops were grown in the spring, harvested in the summer and fall, and then preserved through the process of lacto-fermentation to continue to provide food throughout the winter. This was possible because of lactobacilli bacteria, which is naturally present on the surface of all living things, especially on the leaves and roots of plants and in raw, unpasteurized dairy products. Under certain conditions, lactobacilli will convert the starches and sugars in vegetables, fruits and dairy products into lactic acid, which is a natural preservative that inhibits the growth of putrefying bacteria. The lactobacilli also produce enzymes that enhance digestibility and increase vitamin and mineral levels in the food. Natural antibiotic and anti-carcinogenic substances are also produced. In addition, lactic acid promotes the growth of healthy intestinal flora and alchemically creates hydrogen peroxide that oxygenates the blood.
The traditional process of fermentation begins with first washing and cutting up vegetables or fruits and mixing them with herbs and spices. They are then pounded briefly to release juices, mixed with a solution of salt water and then put into airtight containers where they remain at room temperature for several days. After that, they are stored in a cool, dark place where they will keep for several months. Now, culture starters are available containing healthy microflora and beneficial yeasts that provide a nutrient-rich base for fermentation without the need for salt. Today fermented foods can be purchased in stores, but many of them have added vinegar or have been pasteurized, which destroys the beneficial microflora. Historically, the American Indians pounded vegetables and put them in vessels below the ground, where they were stored for months or even years.
In Europe, sauerkraut is perhaps the most popular fermented food. It is made from cabbage, which is known for its anti-cancer properties and high levels of vitamin C and major minerals. The ancient Romans valued sauerkraut for its medicinal properties. In 18th century England, Captain Cook stored 60 barrels of sauerkraut on his ship before embarking on a 27-month voyage. During that entire time not one sailor came down with scurvy, a debilitating condition caused by vitamin C deficiency, which was common on the high seas. Cucumbers, beets and turnips were also typically fermented in Europe. In Russia and Poland, green tomatoes, peppers and lettuces were favorite cultured foods. Ketchup, chocolate, coffee and tea were also originally fermented foods.
Oriental people prepared and ate cultured foods with every meal. The Korean food kimchi is a fermented blend of cabbage, carrots, green onions, ginger, garlic and hot peppers. The Japanese eat fermented umeboshi plums, miso, soy sauce, nato, and tamari. The Chinese government distributes cabbage to the population each fall to ferment and store through the cold winter months. The Indonesians eat tempeh, which is fermented soy. It is important to note that the only soy foods that the body can actually digest and tolerate are fermented. Unfermented soy products such as soy milk and tofu are actually harmful to health.
Kefir, which means "feel good" in English, is a fermented dairy product originally from the region of Turkey where it is believed Noah's Ark was discovered. It is said that kefir was a gift from the gods, and that the gods told the Turkish people to never reveal the secret of how it was prepared. However, legend has it that the Russians heard of the healing, rejuvenative properties of kefir and tricked the Turks into giving them the recipe. Even today, Russian schoolchildren receive a glass of kefir daily, compliments of the government.
Kefir can be easily made by adding a starter culture of beneficial microflora to milk. Raw organic milk from grass-fed cows or goats is best, since pasteurization kills the beneficial enzymes normally present in milk. Cultured or soured milk products are common throughout the world, including Scandinavia, the Middle East and India. Crème fraiche, a soured milk product, is used in France in many recipes. Cultured butter and fermented cheeses are also common throughout Europe. Yogurt is a cultured milk product that has some helpful microflora, but does not have the potent probiotic properties or beneficial yeasts inherent in kefir.
Any food can be cultured. During the fermentation process, even high-glycemic foods such as fruits, carrots, beets and sweet potatoes are beneficial as the microflora eat the sugars in these foods, rendering them harmless to the body.
Fermented dairy products provide numerous benefits. During fermentation the casein, or milk protein, is broken down, making it more digestible. Vital enzymes that are destroyed during pasteurization may be restored, including lactase, which enables us to digest the milk sugar lactose. Donna Gates believes that no one is actually lactose-intolerant. She feels that it is the lack of a healthy inner ecosystem that prevents us from being able to digest dairy products. She herself was unable to digest milk for 25 years until she discovered how to balance her ecosystem. She now has raw and cultured dairy products on a regular basis. She believes raw butter to be an important food for the recovery of autistic children because of its content of high-quality essential fats, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and butyric acid. Her Body Ecology Diet, which incorporates food combining, the blood-type diet, and aspects of Chinese medicine, is also excellent for anyone who would like to recover from chronic candidiasis, digestive problems, cancer, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, osteoporosis, depression, or for anyone who would like to reach the peak of health.
Donna has recently introduced a new cultured food into her diet: kefir made from the juice of young green coconuts. This delicious drink nourishes the body, cleanses the liver and enhances digestion. While most fermented foods can be quite tart and tangy, coconut kefir has a sweet aftertaste. A scrumptious fermented pudding can also be made from the pureed coconut meat. Rich in anti-microbial and anti-parasitic lauric acid and balanced amounts of calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium and vitamin C, these foods are a tonic for exhausted adrenal glands and emotionally stressed systems.
I personally had a profound experience just five days after beginning the Body Ecology Diet, which included drinking coconut kefir twice daily and eating cultured vegetables with every meal. Having a history of dental problems, I have always had a build-up of tartar behind my lower front teeth, regardless of regular professional cleanings. On the fifth day of being on this diet, the tartar buildup easily came right off my teeth when I brushed them in the morning. I was astounded! The only thing I can surmise is that my body chemistry had changed to a more alkaline pH, which facilitated the disintegration of the tartar. Others have reported numerous benefits from eating this way, including healthy weight loss, improved digestion, elimination of joint pain, easier, cleaner menstrual periods, improved vision, more beautiful glowing skin, and a general feeling of well-being. In time, many people find that they no longer need their antidepressants.
Eating cultured foods on a regular basis is the most effective way to heal a leaky gut, a condition that exists because of a weakened and often inflamed permeable intestinal membrane, which allows undigested food particles to enter the blood stream. Crohn's disease, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic allergies and immune system disorders are all ultimately caused by this problem. In fact, most of the population has this condition because of diet and lifestyle.
Many people believe that taking probiotic supplements such as acidophilus capsules is sufficient for populating the intestines with beneficial microflora. However, without the foundation established by dietary sources of probiotics, the microflora in the supplements cannot properly colonize the intestines.
By including fermented foods in our diet, we can reestablish a healthy inner ecosystem, which protects us from harmful pathogens and environmental toxins. We can then eat foods such as raw eggs and raw meats (as our ancestors did) without fear of getting salmonella, E. coli or parasites. Even if we did pick up these things we might have some slight discomfort, but we wouldn't become seriously ill as we do now.
The ancients knew the powerful magic that nature gave them to stay strong and healthy. We, too, can carry on the traditions that enabled many generations to survive through the ages and ensure a healthy future for our children and the planet that we live on.
Terri Saunders is an herbalist, nutritionist, and Certified Natural Health Professional in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she does consultations in person or by phone, and classes on natural healing. She can be reached at Sunrise Herb Shoppe at (434) 984-2665. For more information on consultations, products, and classes, check the website at www.sunriseherbshop.com. Body Ecology Diet books, kefir and fermented vegetable starters, and supplements can be ordered from Sunrise Herb Shoppe.
Copyright © Bold Connections Unlimited. All rights reserved.