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10 fermented foods & drinks to improve your gut health

By Richard Lin 10 August 2020

Header image courtesy of @nungning20 (Shutterstock)

Traditional Eastern medicine has long advocated that most life-threatening illnesses start in the gut. From the health of our skin, digestive system, and immune system, as well as our mental wellness, bacteria in our gut play an influential role in stabilising our well-being—or impacting it negatively.

As we age, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a good balance between harmful and beneficial bacteria, though there are natural ways to help boost healthy live bacteria in your gut. Let’s look at some fermented food and drinks that will boost the good bacteria in your system and improve your gut health, all easily available in Hong Kong.

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Why is gut health important?

Simply said, our stomach is close to our intestines, which bear the responsibility of breaking down our solid food sources, eliminating toxins, and absorbing nutrients. These are critical functions for human survival and therefore, our gut lining requires back-up.

Good bacteria guard the gastrointestinal tract against potential bad bacteria leaving the intestines. Seeing as the gut is vulnerable to attacks, our gut wall contains the most immune system cells. Immune system cells’ natural response to harmful gut bacteria is to create inflammation. Once the threat is over and good bacteria reclaim the territory, inflammation stops.

The area where immune system cells, bacteria, and other microbes reside is known as the gut microbiome. When our body is under constant attack from bad bacteria and inflammation caused by poor food choices, the conditions can destroy helpful stomach bacteria.

Poor gut health can inevitably lead to all sorts of issues, such as skin problems, mood swings, poor digestion, nutrient deficiency, weight gain, as well as allergies and food sensitivities. In order to bring balance back to our systems, it is highly recommended to consume food products rich in healthy gut bacteria. Fermented foods and drinks, loaded with probiotics and microbes that can help us improve our gut health.

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Probiotics and the fermentation process

Fermenting foods and drinks is an excellent way to preserve food. However, it also creates a food source rich in healthy bacteria that can boost your overall health. These microbes survive in the anaerobic environment by eating natural sugars found in the preserved foods. As this happens, the probiotic bacteria enrich the brine with metabolites, such as enzymes, lactic acid, short-chain fatty acids, and B vitamins.

The waste of probiotic bacteria alters the liquid brine. First, the water and spices turn into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Eventually, oxygen gets added to the fermentation process. This integration infuses the batch with essential amino acids and protein. It also converts alcohol into vinegar, which acts as a natural preservative for these popular fermented foods and drinks.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

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Soy sauce

Soy sauce was created when someone was fermenting soybeans to make miso. This revelation has changed many popular dishes forever, including fried rice, stewed eel, and Hangzhou-style duck. Its salty texture lends itself to many meals, which is great for preventing heart disease.

One of the primary nutrients found in soy sauce is vitamin B3 (niacin). Research shows that this essential vitamin regulates the presence of fats within the bloodstream. Niacin prevents buildups that might cause clogged arteries and inevitably helps lower blood pressure.

These health benefits are supported by the high level of tryptophan in this fermented condiment. Our body uses this amino acid to create serotonin. Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that causes us to feel happy. When we are under less stress, our stomach is less likely to knot up and feel nauseous. This connection between the stomach and mind is known as the gut-brain-axis.

Photo credit: Takeaway (Wikimedia Commons)
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Douchi

This probiotic-rich food is made from fermenting black soybeans in a salty brine. It's used as a base for many black bean sauce dishes involving mapo tofu, bitter melon, or shrimp. However, douchi also pairs nicely with potatoes. Many potatoes are excellent sources of starches. As we noted in the fermentation process, healthy gut bacteria feast on these carbohydrates to create nutrients that benefit our bodies!

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Yoghurt

Yoghurt is one of the most well-known fermented foods around the world. You can start your day off with yoghurt for breakfast, use it to marinate your chicken, or create a creamy salad dressing. Not only does it taste delicious, but yoghurt is rich in healthy bacteria.

Most yoghurt contains an abundance of Lactobacillus probiotic bacteria. A recent London study involving live Lactobacillus bacteria cultures found that these microbes can improve many functions in the system. For one, lactic acid in probiotic yoghurt can help with diarrhoea associated with lactose intolerance.

Researchers also noted the potent antimicrobial effect of probiotic Lactobacilli strains. These beneficial bacteria keep potentially harmful live microorganisms from invading. That way, you experience better health and less frequent stomach problems.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

Photo credit: Anna Frodesiak (Wikimedia Commons)
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Zha cai

If you love the tangy flavours of pickled vegetables, you’re going to love zha cai. While not the most visually appealing, these bulbous mustard stems give a sour crunch to some of the best Asian dishes, including dandan noodles, shredded pork, and cífàntuán, a Chinese glutinous rice dish with a filling of pickled zha cai.

This fermented condiment contains 17 amino acids, great for building blocks for our gut, brain, and skin cells. Additionally, zha cai contains vitamins and minerals that may help detoxify the liver and spleen.

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Rice vinegar

Rice vinegar can accompany pretty much anything. Luckily, you don’t have to feel guilty about it, as there are a variety of health benefits with this culinary staple. The bold flavour of rice vinegar is due to the organic acids the live cultures produce, including acetic acid. Acetic acid may promote fat loss by boosting our metabolism.

One study involving rice vinegar found that test subjects lost weight with the help of rice vinegar. Additionally, this beverage improved insulin resistance and blood sugar levels.

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Tempeh

Vegetarians and vegans should be familiar with this one. Tempeh is a meatless protein source made by the controlled fermentation of soybeans, a particular process that causes the soybeans to become a cake patty.

Cooking and eating tempeh nourishes your body with many antioxidants, namely isoflavones. Isoflavones protect the body from free radicals, which are precursors to many diseases, including cancer.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

By Catharina Cheung 15 October 2019
By Amanda Sheppard 19 December 2018
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Kombucha

Making an invigorating comeback as of late, this fermented drink has actually been popular with humans since the beginning of recorded history. In fact, it is said that kombucha originated in China around 220 BC and was highly prized for its healing properties.

To make this wonder drink, a starter culture is placed in a tea brew, enriching the beverage with nutrients, short-chain fatty acids, and enzymes. With its antioxidants and probiotics, kombucha can boost the health of gut cells to “improve immune function and aid in food digestion.”

Photo credit: Reka Biro-Horvath (Unsplash)
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Pickles

Pickles go well with everything, including a healthy gut. These popular garnishes and side dishes, common especially in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean cuisines, are made by fermenting cucumbers.

Once pickled, cucumbers become new foods with even greater health benefits! For one, pickles are a great source of vitamin K. Vitamin K deficiency is common after being prescribed common types of antibiotics.

To curb the growth of certain bacteria after treatment, consider eating pickles to prevent serious health issues. Plus, they are extremely easy to make at home; all you need are cucumbers, salt, sugar, apple cider vinegar, and water! For additional flavours, simply add fresh herbs like dill and red pepper flakes or aromatics like garlic.

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Baijiu

This alcoholic drink will have you feeling good in more ways than one! Drinking baijiu in moderation can actually maintain a healthy immune system. Research suggests that this Chinese liquor contains antiviral properties that can support vulnerable people. The process of brewing baijiu creates an enzyme known as Superoxide Dismutase, a catalyst for many health-related functions, including repairing cells around the gut lining.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

Photo credit: Ponyo Sakana (Unsplash)
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Miso

Miso is a versatile paste made with fermented soybeans and koji. It gives the umami flavour to many popular dishes around the region, including soup, niboshi (Japanese dried infant sardines), and shiitake mushrooms.

This popular additive is rich in many essential vitamins, inducing vitamin E. Vitamin E is vital for maintaining your skin and eye health. It’s also important for maintaining the health of gut cells.

Your gut depends on vitamin E to prevent inevitable damage caused by inflammation. It helps regulate mucus for more comfortable bowel movements, a benefit is ideal for people who suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).

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Richard Lin

Contributor

After a round of antibiotics wiped out all the bacteria in his gut, leaving him hospitalised, Richard Lin did the research himself and reclaimed his health with probiotic bacteria. Now, as the CEO of Thryve DNA Testing, he dedicates his life to highlighting the importance of gut health. Partnered with scientists and doctors from MIT, Harvard, and Stanford, their at-home tests provide in-depth insights on the bacteria in your gut, a personalised probiotic recommendation, and a tailored diet plan.

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