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Benefits of fermented foods to brain and cognitive function

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Check your news feed and it seems as if new products, recipes and how-to guides to making fermented foods at home are popping up all over social media on a daily basis. You wouldn’t be mistaken: fermented foods are one of the fastest growing health trends. Clinical studies have shown that fermented foods can help strengthen the digestive system, boost resistance to coughs and colds, and may exert anti-inflammatory effects. 

Although fermented food benefits to digestive health and immunity are generally well recognised, recent advances in the understanding of the gut-brain link — also known as the enteric nervous system — mean that the advantages to regularly consuming these foods have a far wider reach than just digestion. In fact research is continually uncovering new connections between our microbiota (the intestinal ‘flora’ in our guts) and cognitive health. Given that mental health is finally gaining the platform it deserves, this is great news for anyone dealing with anxiety, depressive disorder, memory, sleep and other brain function issues.

What are Fermented Foods?

Fermented foods have been around for as long as humans have preserved foods, forming a key part of traditional diets all over the world. Foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, olives and pickles have been made over many generations to maximize nutrition and increase shelf life. Fermented foods also include alcoholic beverages such as wine and beer. Even though the fermentation process in these foods can confer some benefits — such as resveratrol, which is a polyphenol with potent antioxidant properties produced by red wine — for the biggest fermented food benefits it is lacto fermentation that delivers.

Lacto fermentation can improve the nutritional composition of many foods, including dairy products such as kefir, a cultured milk product which is rich in digestive enzymes including lactase. This enzyme ‘pre-digests’ the lactose in the milk, making it an ideal substitute for dairy-intolerant individuals. It has a wide variety of bifidobacteria and lactobacillus species, which nourish the gut microbiome and improve its bacterial biodiversity. It has proven benefits to cholesterol, inflammation, and is high in a range of minerals, B vitamins and vitamin K2.

Is Fermented Food good for you? Why they are Good for Your Brain

More than ever before we are discovering just how much human health depends on the strength and diversity of beneficial intestinal microflora to regulate digestion and metabolism, fight infection and communicate with the immune system. The gut flora is responsible for detoxifying environmental pollutants, increasing resistance to stress and maintaining a healthy gut lining that keeps out unwanted proteins and endotoxins from entering the bloodstream and triggering inflammation.

In recent years both human and animal studies have shown that consuming fermented foods can positively influence conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease by establishing a more balanced intestinal microbiome. Now clinical research is shaping our current understanding of fermented foods supporting cognitive function and brain health by conferring protective biological effects against neurotoxicity and oxidative stress.

In the brain, GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter whose principal role is reducing neuronal excitability throughout the nervous system. Lactic-acid bacteria from certain fermented foods are major producers of GABA and should be considered important interventions for improving mood and cognitive function.

A disordered gut microbiome is clinically associated with anxiety and depressive disorder, and animal studies show that probiotics administered for these conditions have antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects. Moreover, dietary patterns that contain fermented foods, either prepared naturally or commercially, have been shown to positively affect stress relief and memory enhancement, by influencing gut biodiversity.

The overwhelming evidence points to these important microbes as cellular communicators that have evolved with our bodies and brains over millions of years to influence our behaviour. Anecdotally, people who regularly consume fermented foods report diminished bloating, clearer thinking, improved mood and less brain fog. And the wonderful thing about fermented foods is that they are incredibly easy to make at home, with sauerkraut and beet kvass being two prime examples!

How to Incorporate More Fermented Foods in Your Diet

These days it’s becoming easier to consume a greater variety of international foods and beverages. You can check out your local health food shop to see if they stock milk kefir, kombucha tea or unpasteurised kimchi; even some supermarkets are beginning to stock a great range of fermented food products. If you choose to eat out with friends, try opting for Japanese or Korean food, which often provide fermented pickles or cabbage to eat with your meal. And if you want to have a go at making some yourself, even better! You’ll be amazed at how cheaply and easily you can make some of them. Below is an idea to get you started:

Beet kvass is a popular staple of traditional diets in Russia and the Ukraine. It has a tangy, tart flavour and goes well with cooked meats and many savoury dishes. You can drink a shot as a tonic, or even make salad dressings with it and use it like vinegar. It only needs 3 ingredients:

  • Approx 350 g of washed raw beetroot, topped, tailed and cubed
  • 1- 2 tsps sea salt, spices (optional) or ginger or lemon slices
  • Clean filtered water
  • A 1-litre mason jar.

 

Don’t like beetroot? No problem, you can use almost the exact same method with white or red cabbage, and make sauerkraut!

Conclusion

The evidence is clear: probiotic and fermented foods are not only powerful mediators of gut and immune health, they are a powerful tool to maximise brain health, cognitive function and a positive mood. As a staple of traditional diets for thousands of years, the renaissance of kefir, kombucha, kimchi and sauerkraut as 21st century superfoods is definitely a cause for celebration.

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