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I’m taking a break from blogging this summer as I focus on my move, but in the meantime I have some great guest posts on various topics lined up from the autoimmune community. This post is by Sarah Ramsden.
Changing your diet and lifestyle to address an autoimmune condition, can be nothing short of overwhelming. You need to start paying attention to thinks you never considered before, like your sleep, spending time outdoors, and really addressing stress. You can’t eat many of your old favorites, and for the true healing effects of food, you have to add in things that you’d never in a million years consider otherwise. For me, that was fermented foods.
The week I was diagnosed with the autoimmune condition multiple sclerosis, I was also told I had a brain tumour called a meningioma. In a matter of weeks I was under the knife having brain surgery, which led to 3 months off work to recover, and the rest of the year slowly adding in pieces of my life until I was running at full steam again. Only then did I have the mental space to start thinking about MS.
A life long reliance on medication didn’t appeal to me, and I looked elsewhere for answers. That’s when I discovered the concept of going grain free, which led to paleo, and then the autoimmune protocol. The fermented foods came last, and I tentatively added them to my own plate several years ago through necessity. I’ll be honest, the idea frightened me a little (adding bacteria to my food?!), but they won me over with their delicious flavour.
While the research into the role specific bacterial strains play in our body is on-going, we do know that eating fermented foods on a regular basis is beneficial when addressing autoimmune disease. A healing addition to your diet, they are involved in immune modulation; fighting infection; speeding the healing process; have anti-inflammatory effects; and provide digestive benefits such as improving the integrity of the gut mucosal barrier, and helping to correct gut dysbiosis (an imbalance in gut bacteria).
Today I’m going to pass on some tips around the practicalities of fermented foods and autoimmunity that I’ve learned not only from my personal experience, but also from working with clients in my nutrition practice.
Getting started with fermented foods:
If you are new to fermented foods, start by choosing something familiar to you, there’s no need to make it more intimidating than it needs to be! I was a pickle addict as a kid so that’s where I started. If you used to love sauerkraut on your hot dog then that’s your sweet spot, or if you have a thing for fizzy drinks try kombucha. There’s no right or wrong place to start as long as the ingredients fall within what you can tolerate on the autoimmune protocol.
Buy raw and unpasteurized:
Unfortunately, the majority of “fermented foods” found in mainstream grocery stores are completely lacking in the beneficial bacteria and yeasts that make them so healthy. In order to maintain a consistent texture and flavour, the majority of brands pasteurize their products to make them shelf stable, and this process kills the health-promoting nature of the product.
In some of these shelf stable “ferments” such as pickled cucumbers and onions, the standard is now to use vinegar as a preserver rather than the traditional brine used in fermentation. Add pasteurization to the mix, and again you’re not getting the beneficial effects you might expect. The rule is, that if something is on the shelf, it’s been pasteurized. If it’s in the fridge, it’s typically unpasteurized. You can double check by looking for raw and unpasteurized on the label.
Read the ingredients:
As with anything, it’s still important to read ingredients. Not only will you avoid ingredients that might disagree with you, like mustard seeds in pickles, or fennel seeds in sauerkraut, but you’ll also get a second confirmation of the raw and unpasteurized nature of the product. In vegetable based ferments you’re looking for simple ingredients like “water, vegetables, salt”, and in the case of something like kombucha you want to see “water, sugar, tea, culture”. If there’s another form of sweetener at the end of the list, you know it has been sweetened after the fermentation process, an unnecessary step and best avoided by you.
Variety is key:
Once you’re comfortable with your first ferment, start introducing new ones. Just as variety is important in your diet to make sure you get a full spectrum of nutrients, a variety of ferments will also diversify the bacteria you’re exposed to. There’s a huge number to choose from that are AIP compliant, for example there’s sauerkraut, lacto-fermented vegetables like carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potatoes and pickled cucumbers, beet kvass, fermented fruit, kombucha, and water kefir.
Quantity and frequency:
Fermented foods aren’t a quick fix, but bring positive changes with consistent use. When you start eating fermented foods, start slowly; maybe a ¼ cup of fermented vegetables, or half a cup of kombucha for instance. I recommend to my clients with autoimmune conditions, that they aim to eat or drink a ferment daily, ideally with every meal. My personal approach is to have a glass of kombucha with breakfast, and sauerkraut or some kind of lacto-fermented vegetable (cauliflower is my favorite) with lunch and dinner.
Dealing with symptoms:
Like any dietary introduction, pay attention to any symptoms that may result, looking for signs of digestive distress, fatigue, anxiety, depression, mood changes, or a flare up of skin issues. If you do experience symptoms, the first thing to do is to rule out a sensitivity to an ingredient in the ferment as opposed to the fermented nature of the food. So if you eat sauerkraut and experience bloating, double check that cabbage, or cruciferous vegetables in general aren’t the issue. Then you can determine that it’s the addition of the bacteria and yeasts that are the root cause of your symptoms. Most commonly, this is the result of an imbalance in gut bacteria called dysbiosis.
Once symptoms have subsided, reduce your serving size and try again. If you find you’re particularly sensitive, don’t underestimate the positive effect of even a very small amount of fermented food or drink. Some people can only tolerate a spoonful of sauerkraut juice to begin with, and then slowly graduate up to adding in the vegetable, and later increasing quantity and frequency.
People who should be cautious:
Those of you with a histamine sensitivity will have problems with many fermented foods, but before you give up, try kombucha which is known to be better tolerated. Likewise, if you have a yeast sensitivity, you may have to rely on probiotic supplements because while fermented foods are known for their beneficial bacteria, they also contain beneficial yeasts that can cause a reaction.
Take care of your microbiome:
While our digestive system holds the majority of the bacteria in our body, we are literally covered in them, from our skin, to our eyes, to in our noses, mouths, and in women, the vagina. There are literally 10 times the number of them, than there are our own cells! An overall approach to taking care of these guys, who mutually take care of you, involves a variety of steps. Firstly, if you’re doing AIP you’re already eating a wide variety of vegetables that influence the health of your friendly bacteria.
Next, remove all anti-microbial cleaners, soaps and supplies from your home. Instead you can replace them with all natural soaps, solutions like Norwex Microfibre Cloths, and probiotic products like PIP Perfect Skin Hygiene Spray. It goes without saying that you should be very selective in your antibiotic use.
Finally, get outdoors and get dirty; do some gardening, play with your kids in the sandbox, and get regular contact with animals, whether they be pets in your home, or animals on a farm. The dirt on your (organic) vegetables is beneficial too, so when you prepare them, give them a gentle rinse rather than a scrub. A little dirt goes a long way!
Make your own:
Once you get into the habit of including fermented foods and drinks you’ll start noticing that the price tag, it can add up quickly! It doesn’t have to though, as making your own gives you high quality, health-promoting ferments at a fraction of the price. It might seem intimidating at first, but I promise that it can be easy, and even fun. There’s no better time to start making your own fermented foods and drinks.