The morning after date night sometime this year, my house. Sleepy voices, wishing each other good morning, followed by the usual small talk that ensues upon waking up together for the first time. At some point, like every good host, I offer to make some breakfast. “Sure, what do you have?” Smiling on the inside I answer, “Well, I’m gonna fry up some beans and throw together a salad. Feel free to dig into the sauerkraut while you wait.” More often than not, the offer results in an incredulous look, a friendly decline and the sound of my front door closing. Sauerkraut for breakfast, are you serious? Matter of fact I am. But it’s not because I’m super German and doesn’t merely function as a screening process for my dating life (any girl who agrees to a second date after this is a keeper). There is, as usual, a system to the madness.
Sauerkraut is not only the root of an adorable nickname for my people, it is also part of the group of fermented foods. These are foods that have been allowed to be infested by friendly microorganisms. The process has been used by humans for thousands of years, mainly for preservation purposes and to produce more interesting flavors. Other examples of fermented foods are kimchi, kombucha, natto (Japanese fermented soy beans) or plain yogurt.
The main attraction about these foods is in fact the bacteria that are responsible for the process. It might come as a shock to some (since we are living in a society that fears germs and loves everything with the word ‘anti-bacterial’ attached to it) but there are trillions of bacteria living inside each and everyone of us and they outnumber our human cells 10 to 1. Weird, huh?
But before you start chugging down alcohol in medicinal strength, take a moment to learn why the bugs in our digestive tract (also called probiotics) are actually a good thing:
- Health benefits. The friendlies keep harmful microorganisms inside our intestines at bay, preventing them from infecting us and essentially functioning as support for the immune system. They have been shown to shorten bouts of diarrhea caused by the rotavirus. But it doesn’t stop there. Probiotics have the potential to bring about relief of lactose intolerance symptoms and there are signs that they may protect against cavities in your teeth. Help against cancer and allergies is on the table as well.
- Aid digestion and absorption. Probiotics and humans live in perfect symbiosis: the bacteria live in our gut and feed on what we send their way, breaking it down in the process. As a consequence, the nutrients become more readily available to us, increasing the bioavailability and amount of energy harvested from our food. Besides that, the bacteria are even known to produce certain vitamins themselves.
- Possible anti-obesity benefits. Scientists have found a curious correlation of gut bacteria and obesity. In obese and non-obese individuals the proportion of two main strains (called Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes) stand diametrically against one another. Obese people have more Firmicutes, while Bacteroidetes prevail in lean people. The balance shifts in conjunction with weight gain and weight loss. Some scientists suggest that probiotics are a potential tool in the management of obesity and obesity-related disorders.
- Mental health. Believe it or not but the state of our intestinal flora has significant effects on our brain chemistry and behavior. Mice who were fed a probiotic broth showed a significant decrease in behavior associated with stress, anxiety and depression. What’s more, 95% of the neurotransmitter serotonin is produced in the gut, hence its nickname as the “second brain”. A deficiency in serotonin leads to feelings of depression, making it advisable to support intestinal health with these bacteria.
I don’t know about you, but that’s enough reasons to regularly include friendly bugs in my meals. It’s possible to get probiotics in pill and powder form these days, but they can be a little pricey. I stick to fermented foods, such as fresh sauerkraut, because I like whole foods and because in Germany you can get a pack for 0.39€ at the supermarket. I eat about five forkfuls at breakfast. If you go fermented, make sure your food hasn’t been pasteurized as this kills the friendlies.
And one more thing: If your house guest does stay for breakfast, make sure to also offer her something “normal” to eat. She earned it.
How are you getting your probiotic fix? Leave tip and suggestions in the comments.