From stomach aches and constipation to indigestion and heartburn, digestive problems can cause great discomfort and impact our quality of life. So what can be done to help?
Research suggests that eating fermented foods can help alleviate digestive issues, restore the balance of bacteria in your gut, and support overall gut health.
Fermentation is a process where bacteria and yeast convert sugars into acids or alcohol. Our gut usually has an easier time digesting fermented foods because some of the natural starches and sugars have already been broken down.
Most fermented foods also contain good bacteria (called probiotics), which are known to improve gut health and relieve digestive issues. According to scientific studies, probiotics can also boost our immune systems, and reduce inflammation and the symptoms of allergies.
Since different fermented foods contain different probiotic strains – each with different advantages – consuming a wide range can be an effective way to reap the full benefits for your digestive health.
With that said, here are eight fermented foods and drinks to try.
Tempeh is a high-protein meat substitute. It’s made from fermented soybeans that are pressed into a compact cake. During the fermentation process, phytic acid (which decreases mineral absorption) is broken down. This helps to improve digestion and the absorption of food.
Tempeh also has a high prebiotic content. Prebiotics are types of fibre that promote the growth of probiotics. Studies have also shown that prebiotic intake can improve stool frequency and reduce inflammation in the gut.
While similar to tofu, tempeh contains slightly more protein, fibre, iron, and potassium. It’s also a good dairy-free source of calcium and is often used as a dietary supplement by those who are lactose intolerant. Just one cup (160g) of tempeh contains around two-thirds of the amount of calcium found in one cup of whole milk.
Great for vegetarians and meat-eaters alike, tempeh tastes particularly good in sandwiches and stir-fries. It’s firm but chewy and can be steamed, baked, or sauteed before being added to meals.
For cooking inspiration, why not check out these tempeh recipes from Self.com? From tempeh bolognese to marinated peanut tempeh and tempeh bean burgers, hopefully there’s something for everyone.
In Japanese cuisine, natto is a staple probiotic food. It’s known for its strong flavour and soft texture – and just like tempeh, is made from fermented soybeans.
Natto contains significantly more probiotics per serving than other probiotic-rich foods – between one million and one billion colony-forming bacteria per gram.
In fact, research has shown that natto can act as the gut’s first line of defence against toxins and harmful bacteria. These benefits can help to reduce gas, constipation, and relieve symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis.
Natto also contains a healthy amount of fibre (around 5.4g per 100g serving), which is known to support digestive health. Fibre moves through the body undigested – adding bulk to stool and preventing constipation.
Natto is typically paired with rice and served as part of a gut-healthy breakfast. Why not give it a go with this natto breakfast bowl recipe from Japan Centre? You’ll also find instructions on how to make your own natto at home in this guide from Cultures for Health, which only requires three ingredients.
Kefir is a type of cultured dairy product produced by mixing kefir grains (which are a combination of yeast and bacteria) and milk together. This forms a thick, tangy drink that many people say tastes similar to yoghurt.
Research has shown that kefir has numerous health benefits, including for digestion and inflammation. Kefir grains contain up to 61 different strains of bacteria and yeasts, making them a very rich and varied probiotic source. Other fermented dairy products contain far fewer strains and don’t contain any yeasts.
For example, in this study, kefir improved lactose digestion in 15 people with lactose intolerance – a condition caused by an inability to digest sugars in dairy products that can lead to symptoms like bloating, cramps, and diarrhoea.
For information on how to make your own kefir, as well as recipe inspiration, you can visit the BBC Good Food website. From breakfast smoothies to ice cream and salad dressings, here you’ll find plenty of ideas about how to eat more of this gut-friendly food.
4. Kombucha tea
Kombucha is a fermented tea that’s fizzy, full of flavour, and has been consumed for thousands of years. Originating in China, it’s made by adding specific bacteria, yeast, and sugar to black or green tea, which is then allowed to ferment for at least a week.
During the fermentation process, bacteria and yeast form a mushroom-like film on the liquid surface (this is partly why kombucha is sometimes known as ‘mushroom tea’). The large amount of healthy bacteria that grow in the mixture makes kombucha a good source of probiotics, which can improve digestion and inflammation.
If you make kombucha at home, it’s important to make sure you prepare it properly, as contaminated or over-fermented kombucha can be dangerous. Buying ready-made kombucha is usually the safest option. BBC Good Food has a useful article outlining the best kombucha to buy.
Miso is a common seasoning used in Japanese cuisine. It’s made by fermenting soybeans with salt and koji (a type of fungus). Miso is most commonly used to make miso soup – a dish containing miso paste and stock traditionally served for breakfast.
Miso is packed full of probiotics, which science shows can improve digestion, and reduce gas, constipation, and antibiotic-related diarrhoea or bloating. Oryzae is the main probiotic strain found in miso, which research has shown can help to reduce symptoms associated with digestive problems like inflammatory bowel disease.
The fermentation process also helps to improve digestion by reducing the amount of antinutrients present in soybeans. Antinutrients are natural compounds found in food, which, if consumed, can bind to nutrients in the gut and reduce the body’s ability to absorb them.
However, miso is also high in salt and should be eaten only in moderation to avoid health risks. For example, this study found that eating three to four cups of miso soup per day actually increased a person’s risk of developing stomach cancer.
Aside from stirring it into soup, miso can also be used to glaze cooked vegetables, marinate meat, or add flavour to salad dressings. For more cooking ideas, have a read of these 8 ways to use miso paste from Cook Smarts.
Kimchi is a popular Korean side dish that’s usually made from fermented cabbage or other fermented vegetables – such as radishes, celery, or spinach. It’s typically combined with seasonings like salt, sugar, onions, garlic, and chilli peppers for added flavour.
Kimchi is made through the lacto-fermentation process, which uses the bacteria Lactobacillus to break down sugars into lactic acid (this can help digestion and improve nutrient absorption).
Lactobacillus has been shown to help with certain types of diarrhoea and more generally, eating kimchi has been linked with improved gastrointestinal health.
Even better, kimchi is packed with nutrients including vitamins A, C, and K, while still being low in calories. Other health benefits include reduced inflammation, improved heart health, lowered cholesterol, and reduced insulin resistance.
There are various ways to enjoy kimchi, including by itself, in pancakes, as part of a stew, or in a pasta sauce. For more ideas, check out these delicious ways to eat Kimchi from My Korean Kitchen. If you’d like to make your own kimchi at home, have a read of this quick recipe from BBC Good Food.
7. Probiotic yoghurt
The probiotic cultures in yoghurt strengthen the digestive tract. Some Greek yoghurts also contain added probiotics like Lactobacillus, which are known to increase healthy bacteria in the gut.
Other health benefits of probiotic yoghurt include reduced blood pressure and improved bone health.
Not all yoghurts contain probiotics because these healthy bacteria are often killed off during processing. Therefore, it’s best to look for yoghurts that contain live cultures to make sure that you’re getting your intake of probiotics. For added health benefits, you might also like to opt for products with minimal amounts of added sugar.
To get started, why not use probiotic yoghurt to make one of these yoghurt breakfast bowls from Platings and Pairings? Full of colour and flavour, they’re a great way to start the day, or for a quick snack.
Sauerkraut is a popular condiment made from fermented shredded cabbage.
Unpasteurised sauerkraut contains probiotics, which, as we’ve said, help to improve digestion and overall health. Research has found that the probiotics found in sauerkraut can also improve the bacterial imbalance in the gut that sometimes occurs with the use of antibiotics – helping to prevent antibiotic-provoked diarrhoea.
There’s also evidence that the probiotics in sauerkraut can help to reduce bloating, gas, constipation, and diarrhoea – symptoms which are commonly linked to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis.
Unlike many other fermented foods that contain a few particular probiotic strains, studies have revealed that a single serving of sauerkraut can contain up to 28 different bacterial strains, each with varying advantages. To reap the full benefits of these probiotics, remember to avoid pasteurised sauerkraut, as pasteurisation can kill off healthy bacteria.
Sauerkraut is delicious when added to stews and soups, served with meat or fish, or cooked in stock. You’ll find more ideas on how to cook sauerkraut and how to make your own sauerkraut on the BBC Good Food website.
If you suffer from poor gut health or digestive issues, adding different types of fermented food and drink to your diet could bring many benefits.
Known for their probiotic content, some fermented food and drink can be extremely effective at balancing healthy levels of bacteria in the gut and relieving common symptoms such as diarrhoea, bloating, constipation, and gas.
While it can be easy to feel that you lack control when it comes to your gut health, sometimes simple changes can make all the difference.
For more tips and advice on all things gut-related, you might like to check out our article; 7 ways to improve gut health.
What fermented foods do you eat the most? What health benefits have you experienced from eating fermented foods? We’d be interested in hearing from you in the comments below.