A pickle spear served with your meal might seem like a simple garnish, but that pickle's effect on your digestive system is anything but simple.
By eating pickles and other fermented foods – also known as probiotics – you’re actually replenishing the healthy bacteria that live in your gut and throughout your body.
“The digestive tract colonizes specific bacteria that are beneficial for our health,” says Kelly Morrow, MS, RD, CD, a faculty member in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Science at Bastyr University. “Those bacteria are really important for a healthy, functioning digestive tract. They're also a big part of your immune system and can help decrease allergies.”
Fermented foods have been a part every cuisine around the globe longer than we’ve been cultivating the soil, says Jennifer Adler, MS, CN, who also works in the Bastyr nutrition department. Before refrigeration, fermentation was a necessity to preserve food. Since then many of those foods became staples and even delicacies, from sauerkraut and yogurt in Europe to kimchi and miso in Asia.
In American cuisine, the popularity of processed foods nearly eliminated fermentation from our diets until recently. Now canning and pickling classes fill up year-round and probiotic supplements become more readily available.
“People are becoming more aware of how important it is to have a healthy balance of bacteria, and that we do a lot of things in our daily lives that can disrupt that balance,” Morrow says.
Using antibiotics and even antibacterial soaps and cleaners kill not only the bad bacteria, but also the good. Morrow adds that eating too much sugar and other processed foods allows bad bacteria to flourish.
“A diet high in organic, fiber-rich foods is ideal for maintaining gut flora,” she says.
If you’re ready to get started with probiotics, Adler notes that fermentation is an easy skill anybody can learn (see our recipe for Fermented Vegetables from nutrition student Carly Kellogg).
It’s as simple as saving a store-bought jar of salsa that’s about to go bad, she says. “Just add a tablespoon of whey (the yellow liquid that separates from yogurt) or sauerkraut juice, then let it sit on the counter at room temperature for one to three days,” Adler says. “It is then fermented – a strong probiotic source – and it will not go bad.”
Store-bought fermented foods are equally beneficial: Just be sure the label says “live and active cultures,” Morrow says.
Some sources include:
Although probiotics are ideal for all of us to add to our diets, the type and amount can vary from person to person, especially if you’re taking it in supplement form, according to Jamey Wallace, ND, chief medical officer at Bastyr Center for Natural Health, the teaching clinic of Bastyr University.
If you’re considering adding probiotics to deal with digestive issues, Dr. Wallace warns that might make you feel better, but it won’t necessarily solve the problem.
“Probiotics are just one part of overall digestive health,” he says. “You might not be addressing the underlying issues.”
He suggests speaking to your health care provider before you take a probiotic supplement to be sure you’re taking the right kind for your body.
To learn more about probiotics, make an appointment at Bastyr Center for Natural Health by calling (206) 834-4100.
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