It started with a New York Times article titled “The Hippies Have Won.” The title served as vegan catnip for me, and I eagerly read the story that discussed the move of formerly “counterculture” plant-based living into the mainstream (which is amazing news, and the article is a fantastic and informative read). While celebrating the topics covered in the piece, my interest was piqued at the mention of the growing trend of making and consuming fermented foods because, due to new findings on the microbiome, “people are recognizing that this important biodiversity inside of us has been diminished and are seeking strategies to restore it for immune function, digestion, mental health and everything else.”
While the terms biodiversity and microbiome conjured flashbacks of me falling asleep in high school biology class, I was intrigued and wanted to know more.
In true millennial fashion, I took my curiosity to the internet and Google searched “benefits of fermented foods” and the more basic “what are fermented foods?” I quickly discovered that food fermentation, put simply, is “the process of converting carbohydrates to alcohol or organic acids using microorganisms—yeasts or bacteria—under anaerobic conditions.” And it turns out eating them is insanely good for you. Fermented foods contain probiotics, which are great for digestion, as they fill your gut with healthy bacteria and balance its microbiome. People have enjoyed fermented foods across the globe since the dawn of humanity, but scientific evidence noting the importance of gut health is bringing them further into the mainstream.
I decided to hop aboard the fermentation train and committed to eating fermented foods every day for a week. I wasn’t sure I believed it’d have any effect on my body, but there was food involved, so it seemed like a worthwhile experiment either way. To my genuine surprise, I actually noticed significant changes in my body, and I’m now a true believer.
Five things I experienced in my week of eating fermented foods
My cold was cured.
In the week leading up to my experiment, my live-in boyfriend was fighting through a debilitating cold-turned-sinus infection, complete with coughing, sniffling, body aches, and plummeted energy levels. I was amazed that I hadn’t caught his illness, and as he recovered, I became increasingly confident that I was off the hook. When I woke up on the first day of my fermented foods “diet” with a sore throat and aches, I felt completely betrayed by my body. In spite of feeling awful, I proceeded with my plans, not knowing how my body would react. Within 48 hours, I was amazed to find that my symptoms had almost completely disappeared and I felt good as new. I was shocked, considering how long it took my boyfriend to recover. While I did take care to drink fluids and get plenty of rest, I have never before experienced such a quick turnaround time on an illness. Call me crazy, but I think my immunity-boosting fermented foods had something to do with it. According to a 2017 study published in Nature, Lactobacillus casei provides protection against the influenza virus and even develops future immunity against a repeat infection. Translation: when it’s cold & flu season, you might want to be stocking up on your vegan coconut yogurt.
My digestion and energy improved.
As a relatively health-conscious vegan, my regular diet consists of mostly fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods. I rarely eat out, and I try to keep junk food and desserts to a minimum. All of this keeps my digestive tract super healthy, and I rarely have issues with it. However, in the two weeks prior to my fermented foods test, I’d been traveling quite a bit and was at the mercy of non-vegan restaurant menus and family dinners (i.e. fries, chips, white bread, and a substantial dose of added oils and sugar). Being out of my natural eating habits for an extended period of time had me feeling lethargic, bloated, and uncomfortable in my body. Within just a few days of eating fermented foods, my system was back on track, perhaps even more so than usual (and the fact that I was fighting a cold made this all the more impressive).
I discovered new treats.
I’m no stranger to kombucha and kimchi, and while I love them, I didn’t necessary want to consume them every day for a week. I decided that this was the perfect opportunity to branch out from my tried-and-true kitchen staples and add a few new ingredients to my diet. It was also a wonderful excuse to buy that previously unjustifiable $12 artisan coconut mango yogurt from the matcha place down the street. You know, for science. I also took the opportunity to test out new items from the Korean food stall at my neighborhood farmer’s market, such as homemade tempeh and spicy pickled daikon. And while I’m a dedicated kombucha fan, I wanted to try a caffeine-free alternative and tried kefir for the first time, which I now love just as much. Mixing up my routine sparked my creativity in the kitchen, and I had a blast testing out new meals with my deliciously fermented treats.
I felt happier.
As the end of the week approached, I thought to myself “I haven’t cried once this week!” To many, this may not sound like an accomplishment, but for me, a lifetime sufferer of mild depression and anxiety, a minimum of at least one freak out per week is a standard that I have come to expect. I was pleasantly surprised to realize that my mental state throughout the week was exceedingly positive, and I felt more relaxed than usual. It turns out that this wasn’t a coincidence. Research suggests that there is a notable connection between our microbiome and brain chemistry. In a University of Toronto study, patients suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome showed significantly lowered anxiety levels after taking probiotics than those who took placebo. A balanced gut leads to a balanced mind, alleviating depression and anxiety symptoms. Adding good bacteria is a great way to achieve this, and doing so helped me to experience the benefits firsthand.
I got a tummy ache.
While fermented foods are nutritional rock stars, and I experienced mostly positive effects, I found that too much of a good thing can bring some unglamorous side effects. For most days, I opted for a single serving of fermented food per day. But one day, I made the rookie mistake of consuming a bottle of kombucha, some coconut yogurt, and a tempeh vegetable stir-fry topped with kimchi and pickled daikon without realizing how much fermented food I was consuming. Never try this at home, folks. It resulted in pretty significant stomach cramps, the inability to zip up my high-waisted skinny jeans, and a few rather unpleasant bathroom breaks. Turns out that too much good bacteria in your body actually causes the same negative reaction as an excess of bad bacteria, which is counterproductive for those who are eating them to improve gut health. Duly noted.
Overall, my fermented foods experience was an overwhelming success, and I plan to continue to incorporate them into my regular plant-based diet. I’ve even been inspired to start making them at home, so I’ve stocked up on mason jars and have a few great recipes that I can’t wait to try.
Are you a fan of probiotic-rich foods?
Also by Ashley: How A Plant-Based Diet Helped Me Find Body Acceptance
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This article was first published on April 19, 2018 and most recently updated on September 23, 2019.
Photo: Peaceful Dumpling