Kimchi is one of the fermented foods that can help boost the immune system.

Fermented foods have been part of the human diet since long before we discovered the microscopic bacteria responsible for their production.

In ancient Babylon and Egypt, vats of milk effervesced, and Roman soldiers later conquered the world on a meager diet of fermented sourdough. In the Arctic regions, Inuits wrapped seabirds inside seal skins to fester, for three to 18 months, into the delicacy known as kiviak.

What we did know is that these foods kept longer than non-fermented foods, and that they seemed to do our bodies good.
The list of probiotic-packed traditions goes on: Europeans discovered the phenomenon of turning salt and cabbage into sauerkraut, while fermented yogurts and vegetables emerged in the Middle East and India. Fermented milk appears in the Maasai diet, kefir in central Asia. There’s natto, or fermented soy, kim chi, fish and soy sauce from Asia, and mashed, fermented taro root known as poi from the Pacific regions.

But unless our grandparents hung on tight to their dietary traditions, many of these probiotic-rich foods fizzled out of the modern American diet. Somewhere along the line, all things processed and convenient replaced our notion of gastronomical luxury. (They too, had a long shelf life.)

As a significant, if not direct connection between the flora of our intestinal tracts and our overall wellness picks up speed, however, America is reaching back to the Old World. People are brewing DIY kombucha and kefir water at home. At the Wednesday Farmers Market downtown, Farmhouse Culture sells out of artisanal raw sauerkraut, which, unlike the industrial versions that have been pasteurized, contains essential gut-populating flora as well as cancer-fighting isothiocyanates.

Clearly all of this fermentation can’t be just another fad, like coconut water and skinny jeans. But just how crucial is incorporating fermented food into our diets, and can we just be lazy and take a probiotic capsule instead? I took these questions to Soquel-based doctor, Randy Baker, M.D., who began with the first eye-opening fact: the surface area of the gut is about the size of a football field.
That this organ is happy, I’d say, must be pretty tantamount to our health.

“Our bodies have about 10 trillion cells. There are about 100 trillion bacteria that live in our intestines, probably about 500 different species,” says Baker, whose Holistic Family Medicine practice is located at the Pacific Center for Integral Health. “Overgrowth of unfriendly bacteria or yeasts can create a myriad of health problems, placing stress on our immune systems, aggravating allergies, triggering a variety of autoimmune diseases, likely increasing cancer risk, and obviously causing gas, bloating, nausea, diarrhea, and constipation.”

Consumption of “good” bacteria found in fermented foods keep these unfriendly bacteria at bay. And since our intestines have the largest amount of lymphatic tissue in our bodies, says Baker, they also play a much more crucial role in our immune systems than may have been previously emphasized by the medical world.

“It is the main battleground for preventing harmful microbes from entering our bodies, by crossing from the intestines into our bodies,” he says.

But what if kim chi and kombucha make me gag? Are the capsules effective? In a word, yes. While the capsules have concentrations of known strains, fermented foods have a “wild free range,” says Baker, as opposed to the more “domesticated” strains in capsules. Both, he says, are highly beneficial.

“The sum total of improving the balance of GI flora is often dramatic,” says Baker, listing less fatigue, improvement of chronic G.I. symptoms, less headaches, muscle and joint pains, less “brain fog,” decreased allergies and a reduction in overall infections across the board.

“Maybe the single most important thing to do to maintain healthy flora is to avoid the use of antibiotics unless absolutely necessary, and, if using them, to take saccharomyces boulardii, a probiotic yeast, while doing so, and high doses of probiotics and/or fermented foods during and after,” says Baker.

He also recommends a high-fiber diet, since fiber ferments into short chain fatty acids—a good good source for our GI flora. And, this one piece of golden advice, again, for a different reason:

“Avoiding excess sugars and simple carbs is important, as they favor the growth of yeast and some unfriendly bacteria,” Baker says.