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Can Pickles, Sauerkraut and Fermented Foods Make You Healthier?

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Being Korean American, I grew up eating numerous fermented vegetables like kimchi (also spelled kimchee or kim chee), a fermented cabbage that, especially when you season it with garlic, emits a rather potent smell.

"What reeks?" my friends would whisper whenever they visited my house as a child. "Kimchi soup," I would sheepishly reply, recalling the many times my mom and grandmother made this pungent vegetable. I would attempt to mask the embarrassing smell by opening windows and tightly shutting closet doors, but the aroma insisted on wafting through the house anyway.

Kimchi and other fermented vegetables pack probiotics, which help populate and rebalance your gut flora. Studies show probiotics benefit everything from allergies to preventing dental caries to weight loss. One in The Journal of Nutrition, for instance, showed probiotics could protect against colon cancer. And a study in the journal Clinical Microbiology Reviews showed probiotics could reduce diarrhea and other intestinal problems.

Besides its health benefits, my family enjoyed kimchi as much as I do today. My husband, who grew up Italian American, never shared my childhood memories of kimchi's pungent aroma. Marriage requires compromise, and early in our relationship, my husband kindly requested I purchase a special refrigerator just for kimchi.

Fortunately for people like my husband, kimchi isn't the only fermented vegetable. Pickles, sauerkraut, and other fermented foods also introduce probiotics to your gut to help balance microflora. According to Mark Sisson, we don't eat enough fermented foods like sauerkraut or pickles, and even when we do, they're "usually pasteurized and bereft of taste and nutrients."

The Gut-Brain-Immune connection

Intestinal flora impacts more than your gut: It also affects your immune and nervous systems. According to Dr. Joseph Mercola, almost 80 percent of your immune system exists in your gut, which contains about 100 trillion bacteria. If you want to put that into perspective, you have 10 times more gut bacteria than the number of cells in your whole body!

The gut also houses your body's second nervous system. According to Dr. Michael Gershon, you have the same amount of neurotransmitters in your gut as your brain.

For optimal immune and nervous system function, then, you need adequate friendly flora. Bad diets, antibiotics, stress, and numerous other factors can create an imbalance of bad bacteria, creating bloating, fatigue, diarrhea, inflammation, headaches, and sudden cravings for double chocolate brownies. Probiotics in fermented foods can help rebalance your good bacteria and eliminate those problems.

Probiotics and Weight Loss

Obese people have different intestinal bacteria than lean, sexy people. In addition to other health problems, an imbalance of bad bacteria can create inflammation and fat gain.

Fortunately, the right foods can rebalance that flora. A study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, for instance, showed obese people reduced abdominal fat nearly 5 percent simply by drinking probiotic-rich fermented milk for 12 weeks.

Probiotics can also reduce your risk for metabolic syndrome, a nasty condition that, according to glucose metabolism expert Dr. Remy Burcelin at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) in Toulouse, France, includes high blood pressure, insulin resistance, flourishing bad bacteria, and yes, fat gain.

Fermented foods and Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese medicine and culture incorporates the Five Elements -- wood, fire, earth, metal, and water -- whose symbolism influences my cultural language. For instance, on our calendar, Tuesdays are the fire day and Wednesdays are the water day.

These Five Elements extend to food homeostasis. A pickle provides a perfect example. When you take a cucumber, it's bitter (fire element). But add salt (water element) and it ferments into a pickle. Then you add spices like paprika (metal element). Overall, a pickle provides a sour (wood element)/ sweet (earth element) flavor.

To attain homeostasis, lose weight, and get those other health benefits, I recommend eating one to three servings of fermented vegetables every day. Pickles are a delicious way to get probiotics. Please find pickles without added sugar in the refrigerated section of your health food store, not the ones in the middle aisles of your grocery store. You can also make your own fermented pickles.

If pickles aren't your thing, I also recommend sauerkraut to get those crucial probiotics. Packed with vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, sauerkraut can boost your immune system and help your digestive system.

To get those benefits, you need to find refrigerated, non-pasteurized, high-quality sauerkraut. You can also easily make your own sauerkraut.

Now that you know the health benefits of fermented foods like pickles, ask your favorite server to pile on the pickles and load up your plate with sauerkraut. You'll have a delicious meal while giving your gut the healthy flora it needs to boost immunity, fight disease, and finally get into those skinny jeans hiding in the back of your closet.

And if I've piqued your curiosity, you're feeling adventurous, and you see a Korean restaurant nearby, hop on over and order a big bowl of kimchi. You'll get all the benefits of this amazing vegetable without smelling up your apartment.

Sources:

http://www.nature.com/nature/videoarchive/gutmicrobes/index.html

http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2010/07/06/probiotics-bacteria-gut-digestive-health-immune-system.aspx

http://www.sauerkraut.com/benefits.htm

http://www.marksdailyapple.com/fermented-foods-health/#ixzz1jrwWeNoe

http://www.nutraingredients.com/Research/Probiotics-may-help-fat-and-weight-loss-Study

http://www.danisco.com/media/news/company_news/2010/study_of_danisco_probiotics_shows_positive_impact_on_metabolic_syndrome_mets/

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6654607

Brady LJ, et al. The role of probiotic cultures in the prevention of colon cancer. J Nutr. 2000 Feb;130(2S Suppl):410S-414S.

Gershon, M (1999). The Second Brain: A Groundbreaking New Understanding of Nervous Disorders of the Stomach and Intestine. New York, NY: Harpers.

Hunter, BT (2008). Probiotic Foods for Good Health: Yogurt, Sauerkraut, and Other Beneficial Fermented Foods. Laguna Beach, CA: Basic Health.

Reid G, et al. Potential uses of probiotics in clinical practice. Clin Microbiol Rev. 2003 Oct;16(4):658-72.

Pitchford, Paul. Healing with Whole Foods Oriental Traditions and Modern Nutrition. CA: North Atlantic Books, 1993.

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