You know what they say: “The stomach is the window to the soul”. Okay, so maybe that isn’t the exact expression, but it’s still true. Your stomach is influenced by so many other parts of your body that how your gut is feeling can tell you a lot about your overall state of health. I’ve even heard my belly called “a second brain” because of how much stomach health can influence your mood.
But have no fear. If you are having tummy troubles, or want to improve your gut health there are amazing foods and drinks that can help improve your digestion and comfort down there. I’ve struggled with a sensitive stomach for years, just so you know, so I’ve got experience with this!
You’ve probably heard about fermented foods and probiotics, being good for you, but why? Well probiotics are sometimes called “good” bacteria. We often think of bacteria as all bad, but the truth is we need certain types. Good bacteria are important in our stomachs and our digestive and urinary tracks. One of the ways probiotics is supposed to help us is by replacing good bacteria we may have lost. This most often happens when we take antibiotics. Women taking antibiotics are sometimes told to eat extra yogurt to avoid UTIs, that’s because yogurt is full of probiotics!
I’ve done many things to feel better over the years, including a restriction diet to remove foods that upset my system, acupuncture, naturopathic treatments, and I even took IBS medication for a short period of time (I was hospitalized for a really upset stomach in university = not fun, especially with a male nurse). Needless to say, I have been there and done that and find that fermented foods are a great and tasty way to keep my gut happy. They also taste great and are good for you, so, double rainbow as far as I’m concerned. They have become staple items on my grocery list. Who knows, if you are a little adventurous they may make their way onto your list, too. And if you’re even more adventurous, you might try making your own!
You have probably heard of Kombucha as its popularity has recently soared. Honestly, I was sort of scared to try it (it’s made with a slimy ‘mother’ which is what starts the fermentation) but the mother is nothing to fear! It’s so unique – bubbly, sweet, a little sour and yet nothing like soda – and it comes in a bunch of delicious and creative flavours (cayenne pepper, ginger and pomegranate juice is one of my faves!). Kombucha is a fermented tea beverage and is usually made with black tea, sugar, and live cultures (mama!) that ferment the tea over time and infuse the drink with many beneficial qualities.
Its main benefits come from being a probiotic beverage – and these ‘good bacteria’ are what we need for excellent gut health. Kombucha is chock full of this good bacteria and apart from making my stomach feel calm and satisfied (not bloated or gassy), it is said to have mood stabilizing benefits because gut health is connected to mental health, so that as it treats your stomach, it treats your head too. While I don’t have scientific studies to back this up, I can tell you that I’m extremely happy when I drink Kombucha. Also, because of the fermentation, it can cause some people to get a similar feeling to that of being a little tipsy. This is nothing to worry about, frankly, I just enjoy the natural buzz.
My go-to brand right now is GT’s Enlightened Organic Raw Kombucha. There are only 4 grams of sugar per bottle, which is much lower than other types, and over 2 billion live cultures per bottle. But I love them most for the f-l-a-v-o-r-s. My current faves are Gingerberry (ginger gives kombucha a peppery kick and the berry sweetens it right up, almost like a berry ginger ale), Guava Goddess, Mystic Mango, Strawberry Serenity, and Euphoria (the ginger cayenne one!). But seriously, I could drink any flavour because it’s so delicious. You’ve definitely got to taste them to know which ones you love.
Be careful when picking your kombucha, some brands are just “kombucha flavoured teas” that don’t contain cultures, and so they won’t be beneficial for your digestion. Make sure to pick a brand that has live cultures.
If you have ever been to a Korean restaurant, you have probably seen Kimchi on the menu. I’ve always been a fan of spicy, salty and sour, so kimchi was *right* up my alley. If you like salt and spice, you’ll love kimchi.
Kimchi is a Korean side dish made from fermented vegetables such as cabbage and radishes, along with spices like garlic and ginger and of course, the famous gochugaru (Korean hot pepper flakes). That might not sound super appealing, and the first time you get a whiff of it you might be turned off (it kind of smells foul tbh), but once you take that first bite, especially if you like spice and pickles, you’ll be sold. And if that doesn’t sell you, consider the amazing health benefits of kimchi.
Kimchi is full of vitamin A, fibre, has anti-inflammatory properties, it’s said to boost the immune system and is rich in antioxidants, all thanks to that fermentation, making it a super healthy probiotic food. It is brimming with lactic acid bacteria, which means it’s helpful for digestion. It’s also low calorie. Honestly, the list of kimchi’s health benefits goes on and on. That’s why it is a staple in Korean homes and considered a necessary condiment at mealtime. I’ve even made my own before and frankly, it was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever had.
Most Korean restaurants serve it, if you want to try it risk-free. Health food stores are also starting to carry it, although it can be pricey. Making it at home took about 15 minutes…it was waiting for it to ferment that took time (a week or two). It is best homemade and a perfect condiment for sandwiches, salads, eggs, frankly, anything you would have hot sauce with. Just give it a shot!
If you love the umami flavour, miso is another great option. It is a paste made from fermented soybeans and salt, and can be served in a variety of ways, in fact it is a good cook’s secret ingredient. You have probably had miso soup if you’ve eaten at a Japanese restaurant, and if you pick up a jar of miso you can easily make that soup for yourself at home (even consider adding in seaweed and scallions). For cooking, you can easily add miso to marinades, stir fries, or even use it a salt substitute for seasoning. I use it with rice wine vinegar, sesame oil and Japanese seven spice to season roasted brussel sprouts and I am famous for that side dish.
*Fun Fact* I’ve been told you are always supposed to serve miso soup with chopsticks, so that you can stir up the ingredients before each sip, which you take straight out of the bowl. Other than being delicious and easy to use, miso has a ton of health benefits. It’s been a staple dish in Japan for hundreds of years. Miso is full of amino acids and B vitamins like B12, which means it aids digestive health and
restores probiotics. Buy it from the health food store and pick up a natural brand with basic ingredients (no preservatives) – you want the real deal because that’s where all of the health benefits can be found. My health food store keeps miso in the fridge. It’s an affordable way to bring fermented foods into your diet. I use a teaspoon and add it to water that’s been boiled and then cooled for a couple of minutes…water that’s too hot will kill off the good bacteria. It’s a warm, soothing drink (I have it in place of coffee or tea) and it satisfies salty cravings at the same time. YUM.
Kefir is a drinkable yogurt, like Yop for adults (I don’t know if you drank that as a kid, but I sure did). It’s also “adult” because it has some serious health benefits; it’s like super powered yogurt.
Kefir is full of probiotic cultures just like Kimchi and Kombucha. It’s also low in lactose, even though its yogurt. If you find yogurt or dairy upsets your stomach, this can be a great option to get those enzymes without the excess dairy. (Note that isn’t lactose free, so it isn’t safe if you are lactose intolerant, but it’s great for those trying to reduce dairy). It’s also packed with protein, which is important to a lot of people. If you want more protein in your breakfast to keep you full all day, kefir may be a good choice. And, have you ever heard of a “Turkey Coma”? That tired feeling you get after eating a big Thanksgiving meal? Well apparently it comes from Tryptophan, an amino acid present in turkey – and in kefir! It means kefir might help you relax (don’t worry it doesn’t have enough to put you in a coma) which could help on stressful days.
Personally, I tried using kefir in lieu of coconut milk in my smoothies for a way to add in the probiotics, but I am just too sensitive to dairy and it blew me up like a party balloon. So, no kefir for me. With fermented foods, I find that you’ve got to try and see if it works for you. These foods have the potential to make you feel amazing, so it’s worth exploring.
A Super Easy Option (to easily add good gut bacteria into your life)
Sour Dough Bread
Consider this the ‘gateway drug’ of fermented foods. If you can tolerate gluten (or control yourself with bread, which I can’t), sour dough is a pretty healthy choice as it goes for bread. It’s great for all the same reasons as the other fermented foods on this list – because of good acids! Sourdough is made with a higher yeast percentage than most other breads, and is full of lactobacillus acid, which is especially good for digestion. Basically, the acid kind of “digests” the flour for you, and because wheat flour is what causes tummy trouble for a lot of people, having less of it makes the bread easier on the stomach.
If the previous foods seem a little too out there for you (I’ll admit that a jar of Kimchi can look and smell odd) sour dough bread is a great, conservative way to add good bacteria to your diet. But promise me you’ll try something else, too!