Penelope Thompson, M.H.

Germ: a microorganism, especially one that causes disease.  In the US, the word “germ” often insinuates potential harm and leads many to believe that all germs are dangerous and are just organisms ready to cause infection to the unsuspecting. And so naturally, what is seen as harmful is often avoided or even destroyed.  Whereas, in some parts of the world, many people consume fermented or “cultured” foods – an age-old process used to preserve foods and to make them more nutritious and digestible. For our purposes in this essay, “culturing” is the sense of growing beneficial bacteria (or germs).

Fermentation is the process by which a substance is transformed through the activities of bacteria, yeasts and other microorganisms into strains of bacteria that is beneficial (probiotics) to our health. The term probiotic comes from the Latin word pro, meaning “before” or “forward”, and bios, or “life” — thus probiotics are life-improving bacteria.

Probiotic organisms can produce various substances including alcohol, lactic acid, and acetic acid, all natural preservatives that can help to retain nutrients and prevent spoilage of these foods.

Alcohol is produced in the transitional phase of fermentation, where yeasts break down and convert carbohydrates into ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide.  The bacteria that naturally exist in the air, continues the process and turns the ethyl alcohol into acetic acid.  It is the production of acetic acid that is responsible for the sour taste of vinegar, pickles, sauerkraut and some favorites.

Lactic acid producing bacteria help acidify the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, creating an environment favorable to the growth of healthy bacteria. Some of the common beneficial strains of bacteria found in fermented foods (Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, and Bifidobacteria), colonizes our GI tract and have been proven to be important bacteria in human ecology.

Some popular (or traditional) fermented foods that you may recognize include; yogurt, cottage cheese, kefir, kombucha, pickle, sauerkraut, kimchi, sourdough breads, miso and kvass.

With today’s busy and fast-paced schedules, these foods are more important than ever for our daily health habits. The balanced flora of our GI tract operates in a symbiotic relationship between good and bad microorganisms that fermented foods can play an important role. Eating live fermented foods is a health practice to help keep the GI tract flora in balance. Some of the many benefits of consuming probiotic foods include:

·         Improves digestive health

·         Improves skin conditions, like eczema

·         Improves urinary and vaginal health

·         Improves oral health

·         Helps prevent allergies

·         Helps stimulate the immune system

·         Helps balance a healthy body weight

Penelope Thompson is a Master Herbalist graduate from the School of Natural Healing.