Sauerkraut, a form of fermented cabbage, has been popular throughout Central Europe for hundreds of years. Sauerkraut combines one of the healthiest foods there is (cabbage) with one of the most beneficial and time-honored food preparation methods ever used (fermentation).
According to the Institute for Integrative Medicine at the University of Witten in Germany, sauerkraut is one of the most common and oldest forms of preserving cabbage and can be traced back as an important food source to the fourth century B.C.
The Secret to Sauerkraut’s Health Benefits: Fermentation
What is it that’s so special about fermented vegetables and foods? Fermentation simply refers to an ancient technique and perseveration method that naturally alters the chemistry of foods. Similar to cultured dairy products like yogurt and kefir, sauerkraut’s fermentation processproduces beneficial probiotics that are now linked to improvements in immune, cognitive, digestive and endocrine function.
People have been using fermentation to preserve valuable vegetables and other perishable foods for long periods without the use of modern-day refrigerators, freezers or canning machines. Fermentation is the metabolic process of converting carbohydrates, like sugars, into either alcohols and carbon dioxide, or organic acids. It requires the presence of a carbohydrate source (like milk or vegetables, which contain sugar molecules) plus yeast, bacteria or both. The yeast and bacteria microorganisms are responsible for converting glucose (sugar) into healthy bacteria strains that populate your gut environment and help regulate many bodily functions.
Microbial fermentation occurs when the bacteria or yeast organisms are deprived of oxygen (which is why fermentation was first described as “respiration without air” by early French microbiologists that discovered the science behind the process). The type of fermentation that makes most foods “probiotic” (rich in beneficial bacteria) is called lactic acid fermentation. Lactic acid is a natural preservative that inhibits harmful bacteria growth.
What Are the Effects of Sauerkraut’s Probiotics?
First and foremost, sauerkraut’s live and active probiotics have beneficial effects on the health of your digestive tract — and therefore the rest of your body too. That’s because a very large portion of your immune system actually lives within your gut and is run by bacterial organisms, what you can think of as “your gut’s bugs” that live within your intestinal flora. Microbial imbalances have been associated with enhanced risks of various diseases, but luckily obtaining beneficial microorganisms from probiotic foods has repeatedly demonstrated health benefits in clinical settings.
After eating foods like sauerkraut that provide probiotics, these gut bugs take up residence on the lining and folds of your intestinal walls, where they communicate with your brain via the vagus nerve. They also act like your first line of defense against various harmful bacteria or toxins that enter your body. Some beneficial probiotic bacteria found in sauerkraut and other cultured veggies are more or less permanent residents because they form long-lasting colonies. Others come and go more quickly but still have important anti-inflammatory effects.
As described in a 2009 report published in The Indian Journal of Medical Microbiology, “the use of antibiotics, immunosuppressive therapy and irradiation, amongst other means of treatment, may cause alterations in the gut composition and have an effect on the GIT flora. Therefore, the introduction of beneficial bacterial species to the GI tract may be a very attractive option to re-establish the microbial equilibrium and prevent disease.”
The good bacteria living in someone’s healthy gut environment have been proved to be crucial for lowering the risk of just about every form of acute or chronic illness there is. A 2006 report published inThe Journal of Applied Microbiology states that probiotic benefits from cultured foods include lowering the risk of:
- brain disorders and mental illness
- digestive disorders like leaky gut syndrome, ulcerative colitis and IBS
- mood disorders like depression and anxiety
- hormonal imbalances
- food allergies and sensitivities
- metabolic conditions such as diabetes
- obesity or weight gain
- various autoimmune diseases
This is due to probiotics’ direct and indirect influences on various organs and systems, especially the rate at which your body produces inflammation and controls hormone production. The “good bacteria” and other organisms living within your gut might as well be considered an organ in their own right, because they’re critically important to the health of your brain, hormones, heart, lungs, liver and digestive organs. The latest science tells us that probiotic-rich foodscan help:
- Improve immune function, since they create a barrier against potential invaders including “bad bacteria” like pathogens, viruses, fungi and parasites
- Aid in digestion and the absorption of various nutrients
- Detoxify the body, since probiotics help prevent infections and combat toxins living within your digestive tract
- Support brain function and cognitive health, even helping to prevent dementia, treat Alzheimer’s disease and stave off memory loss
- Handle stress through the “gut-brain” connection, your microflora’s effects on your endocrine (hormonal) system
- Control inflammation that is at the root of most diseases