Fermented foods for healthy moods

In this article I’ll explain why fermented foods are beneficial for preventing and alleviating symptoms of depression and anxiety. I’ll also explain what kinds of fermented foods you should eat, how much to eat, and how you can incorporate fermented foods into meals.

At the end, I’ll include easy instructions to make your own real fermented sauerkraut. It’s makes a great activity for dads and kids!

If you don’t already know, I became a Nutrition Therapist focused on men’s mental health after my own experience with bipolar disorder. After years of suicidal psychiatric hell, I finally recovered when I discovered there were two primary causes of my suicidal depression:

  1. A junk food diet was contributing to the mood fluctuations I was experiencing, driving the soaring highs to crushing lows
  2. Feminist misandry had convinced me that as a man I was a hopeless blight on the planet and the whole world would be better off if I was dead

After recovering from bipolar depression, thanks to both holistic nutrition and unlearning the misandrous bullshit that had plagued me for years, I decided to repurpose my life to helping other men who struggle with depression and anxiety. I’m especially interested in helping men of the MRM, as they (you) are warriors for a cause I feel so strongly about!

To this end, I’m excited to write blogs for AVfM about how men can support their health in general and their mental health in particular. So with that goal in mind, let’s get into how and why you should incorporate fermented foods into your diet.

My last few posts have been about the role of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats in mental health. These three posts lay the groundwork to create a healthy diet that will support a healthy mood. In this post I will expand on what we’ve already covered by explaining how and why to include fermented foods in the diet.

To understand why fermented foods are important, you need to first understand a little bit about how intimately connected the gut and brain are.

The gut-brain connection

In my life, and in many of my clients, a junk food diet leads to digestive problems. And because the central nervous system, or brain, is strongly connected to the nervous system in the gut, known as the enteric nervous system, gut health problems can cause mental health problems. The two nervous systems communicate constantly via the vagus nerve.

Problems with the gut can and do affect the brain profoundly. This is now well-established in research (1) (2) (3).

Two important factors in maintaining a healthy gut are:

  1. Eating fermented foods regularly
  2. Limiting refined carbohydrates and sugars in the diet

The Standard American Diet is the polar opposite of a gut-healthy diet. It is high in refined sugar and carbohydrates and contains little to no fermented foods, creating a perfect storm for gut problems like constipation, diarrhea, dysbiosis, and overgrowths of pathogenic yeast and bacteria.

Refined carbohydrates and sugars feed pathogenic bacteria in the gut the probiotic bacteria would ordinarily help to keep in check.And because the gut and the brain are so intimately linked, mood and other mental faculties suffer (4).

You might be wondering how fermented foods help keep the gut healthy. Before I get to that, let’s learn a little about the science of fermenting food!

The fermentation process

Fermentation is a process by which naturally occuring bacteria metabolize, or “eat” the natural sugars and starches in food and produce lactic acid, extra nutrients and various strains of probiotic (friendly) bacteria. The process also preserves the food and improves shelf life.

Although the prospect of eating fermented foods seems bizarre to many people today, especially Americans, people around the world have been consuming fermented foods for thousands of years. German sauerkraut and Korean kim chi are two common and ancient types of fermented vegetables. People have also long fermented milk into yogurt, and soy into miso. In contrast, most Westerners don’t eat fermented foods at all, to the detriment of their health.

In general, foods can be fermented by one of two methods:

  1. A cultured food like yogurt, in which a certain strain of bacterium (lactobacillus) are introduced to a food (milk)
  2. A wild ferment like sauerkraut, in which the native bacteria present on the vegetables do the fermentation

Benefits of fermented foods

Fermentation provides many health benefits, many of which relate directly to gut and brain health. These are benefits of fermentation that have been established in the research at this point.

Benefits of fermentation:

  • Synthesizes nutrients not already present in the food
    • B vitamins
    • Vitamin K2
    • Isoflavones
  • Improves digestion and gut health
    • Strengthens stomach acid
    • Synthesizes enzymes
    • Provides probiotic bacteria
    • Prevents pathogenic infections
  • Makes foods more digestible
    • Breaks down lactose, making dairy better tolerated
    • Eliminates anti-nutrients like phytates (5)

These health benefits conferred by fermentation are all helpful for curbing and preventing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Now that we know why to eat fermented foods, let’s get into which ones we should eat.

Real fermented foods

It’s important to distinguish between real, raw fermented foods and foods that are pickled. Real sauerkraut is alive, perishable and must be refrigerated. The canned or jarred sauerkraut in the dry goods section of the grocery store is not real fermented sauerkraut; it is usually pickled and heated. Pickled vegetables aren’t bad, but they don’t have the health benefits listed above.

Happily, most health foods stores now sell raw, fermented sauerkraut in the refrigerated section. They even have it at my Costco in Denver now. Your basic sauerkraut only has two ingredients: cabbage and salt. Some varieties add other vegetables and spices to change the flavor. Look at the ingredients on the Nutrition Facts label. If it contains vinegar or anything except vegetables, salt and spices, it’s probably not real sauerkraut.

If you are a DIY kind of guy, you can easily make your own sauerkraut at home. I’ll include a link to instructions on how to make your own sauerkraut shortly.

Including fermented foods in the diet

Now that you know how great fermented foods are for you, how can you go about adding them to your diet? This section will answer questions like:

  • What the heck do you do with sauerkraut?
  • How much should you eat?
  • What are the best fermented foods to eat?

Keep reading to learn the answers to all your sauerkraut questions…

What to do with sauerkraut

Admittedly, sauerkraut and other fermented foods are a bit of an acquired taste. If you like sour foods or candy, you’ll probably love sauerkraut. If not, you may have to try it several times to develop a taste for it. Give it a few tries.

How to incorporate sauerkraut into your diet:

  • Eat sausage and sauerkraut, the German classic
    • Look for sausage made from organic, grass-fed meat like Teton Waters Ranch brand
    • Pair with a sweet potato with plenty of butter and something green – green beans, asparagus or kale/chard/spinach
  • Add a side of sauerkraut to your eggs for breakfast
    • I know it sounds weird, but it’s SO GOOD
    • My personal favorite is eggs fried over-medium on a bed of sauteed veggies
  • Put sauerkraut on your salad
    • If you enjoy a big, hearty salad, throw a little sauerkraut on top
    • Make it a delicious, filling salad, not some crappy bland iceberg lettuce nonsense
  • Add a side of sauerkraut to just about anything
    • It goes well with a lot of meals
    • Put some on your beans and rice, or baked chicken with veggies, or whatever you’re eating

How do you eat sauerkraut? Share what you like in the comments!

How much sauerkraut you should eat

If you aren’t already eating fermented foods, it’s best to introduce them gradually. Start with one or two tablespoons of sauerkraut per day and gradually increase. In general I don’t recommend eating more than about 1/2 cup per day, even after easing into the habit. A little bit goes a long way.

The best fermented foods to eat

I’ve focusing on sauerkraut here because it’s the mostly commonly available fermented food, and it’s really easy to make. And if you’re of European descent, it’s probably a food your people have been eating for thousands of years or more. There are advantages to eating an ancestral diet.

If you’re of Korean descent, or if you just want to expand your horizons, try kimchi. Similar to sauerkraut, it’s also most commonly made from cabbage and sometimes radishes that are combined with spices like chili powder, garlic and ginger. I love kimchi also; it has a great sour-spicy taste!

Asian cultures have also long fermented soy into products like miso and tempeh. I don’t recommend much soy to men, as soy contains phytoestrogens that can throw off hormone balance and interfere with healthy testosterone levels (3).

Another benefit of fermentation is that it reduces those hormone problems to some extent, so fermented soy products in limited quantities are generally well tolerated. Fermented soy is far preferable to non-fermented varieties like tofu and edamame.

In addition to fermented vegetables and legumes, another option is fermented milk (yogurt), which is often better tolerated than non-fermented dairy because of the reduced lactose content. Cheese is also fermented and hard cheeses in particular, like cheddar and Parmesan are typically better tolerated than soft cheeses.

And although I don’t usually recommend eating bread or gluten-containing foods to my clients, if you’re going to eat wheat-based bread, good fermented sourdough bread made from organic wheat is probably your best option.

Finally, fermented beverages are another option. The most common example is kombucha, which is fermented tea. Others include beet kvass, kefir and jun tea. Many of these are also relatively easy to make. I have been making kombucha for several years.

How to make your own sauerkraut

Now that we know the benefits of fermented foods and how to incorporate them into the diet, let’s learn how to make our own sauerkraut!

Sauerkraut making supplies

Making sauerkraut may seem kind of complicated at first, but it’s really simple. Pretty soon you’ll be making sauerkraut without even looking at the recipe! When I make sauerkraut I don’t even measure anymore; I just eyeball it.

Before I get into how to make the sauerkraut itself, you’ll need a few supplies:

  1. Wide mouth mason jar(s), 1/2 gallon – I get mine from Kmart
  2. Airlock lid to vent off CO2
    1. You can either buy a premade one like this
    2. Or make your own if you have a drill (a fun activity for dads and kids):
      1. Plastic lids
      2. Airlocks
      3. Rubber stoppers
      4. Drill a hole for the stopper in the plastic lid, insert the stopper, then stick the airlock in the stopper
  3. A food processor with a slicing blade
    1. Way easier than doing it by hand
  4. Big cutting board
  5. Sharp kitchen knife
  6. 1 or 2 big mixing bowls

Be sure to thoroughly wash your jars and lids before starting.

How to make sauerkraut

Making sauerkraut basically involves shredding cabbage, mixing it with salt and packing it in a jar. To learn how to make your own easy, delicious sauerkraut at home, check out these instructions.

In conclusion

Sauerkraut is a powerful health food that is good for most people, and especially powerful in preventing and alleviating symptoms of depression and anxiety. Adding some fermented foods to your diet is a delicious and powerful way to look out for your own health. Whether you buy sauerkraut from the store or make it yourself, adding sauerkraut to your diet on a regular basis can make a big difference in your health.

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