Pickling vs Fermenting: Feed Your Microbiome Right & Stay Healthy

pickles in a crock

Fermented foods and pickles are one of the lost arts of our modern diet. I grew up with a crock of pickles on the counter throughout summer, but once the excess-veg season was over that was the end of our fermented foods save the occasional big-brand yogurt treat. My mum canned some pickles, but the counter-top ferments were the ones we all clamored for. They were good.

Probably, they were what our bodies were crying out for, too. While pickles are good for you, fermented veg takes pickling to a whole new nutritional level.

Pickle vs Ferment: What’s the difference?

Pickles are foods, like cucumbers or red onions, that have been submerged in an acid solution, usually vinegar in Western tradition but in Ayurveda lemon and citrus are often as not key acidifiers. Pickling veggies helps begin the breaking-down of their chemical structures and encourages enzymatic activity. Enzymes naturally form when foods begin to break down in the initial stages of rotting to help keep the nutrients in those tissues in-tact. The vinegar used in pickles raises the ph levels, thus also inhibiting the breaking-down process PIckles are, in essence, not-yet-rotten foods.

How can that be good for you? PIckles are kind of like herb-infused vinegars. The longer they stay in the pickling juice, the more of their nutrients infuse into the vinegar. That’s why some folks are so enamored of drinking pickle juice. It’s chock full of nutrition even if it’s not the fermented kind. The pickles we eat are pretty much the marc, except they’ve got more texture and flavor than the leafy bits we infused into that herbal vinegar. And, they’ve still got a decent amount of their nutrition, plus digestive enzymes and fiber that’s prepared beautifully for your microbiome to enjoy.

Fermented foods take that whole pickling process a step further. They’re made with salt and water, not vinegar. The salt creates an environment that’s friendly to friendly bacteria (lactobacteria) and hostile to harmful bacteria. They feed on the carbs in your veg, converting them into foods and producing waste to support their colonial growth. As the friendly bacteria increase their number, they create a more acid environment, which stimulates the same chemical responses in those cucumbers than vinegar-pickling did. Now, you’ve got a load of gut-friendly bacteria alongside healthy enzymes and nutrients that have begun breaking down and are thus more palatable to your microbiome.

Why does your Microbiome care?

We need a healthy microbiome to digest our foods, plain and simple. Those bacterial colonies do the bulk of the work in processing our foods so that we can absorb what we need to grow a healthy body and feel good. We’ve evolved alongside them in a mutually benefical relationship, providing each other with a good trade system…one scientific researchers are only just beginning to recognize and respect. Although more research is needed, they’re beginning to see a link between a happy, healthy microbiome in the gut and a happy, healthy state of mind. Folks who suffer from chronic digestive disorders are far more likely to also suffer from chronic anxiety, depression, and similar mood disorders. Likewise, experiential evidence and Traditional Medicine has long recognized that if you’ve got mood problems the first step is to address diet and lifestyle factors, which often includes bringing diet back into a state of balance that ultimately supports a healthy microbiome in your gut.

So do I pickle my veg or ferment it?

The question of whether to pickle or ferment is not as simple as it sounds.

Pickling is fast and easy. Those pickled red onions they use to garnish your foods in fancy restaurants…they’re pickled often just hours before you eat them. Aunt Patty’s icebox pickles are another example many Mid-westerners in the USA will recognize. Fans of Indian food are also familiar with quickly pickled foods; most Indian pickles can be made and eaten the same day or the next. Even that short duration in the picking juice is enough to start the enzymatic processes, so if you’re in a pinch a pickle is better than no pickle.

On the other hand, Fermented foods offer you a lot more long-term health benefits, even if they’re a little more troublesome to prepare. We talked a bit about how to make a simple Saurkraut on Real Herbalism Radio Here. They can be pretty easy to make, but you’ve gotta be patient. Most will take at least 3-4 days even in warm weather to be ready for eating.

Fermented foods often contain higher levels of salt, too. One study suggested that folks with diagnosed hypertension or high blood pressure did better including a daily dose of Kimchi in their diets than those who did not. Kimchi is a higher-salt food, so they expected to see less benefit than they did. Researchers surmised that other nutrients, most notably potassium, were made more available and absorbable to study participants guts and thus provided a balance to the higher levels of sodium in the Kimchi. You can ferment foods using a lot less salt, like adding a powdered probiotic or using a bit of juice from the last batch as a starter kind of the way you use a sourdough starter to get the rise going in sourdough.

Nutrition in Fermented Foods: Saurkraut, Kimchi, and Similar Ferments

The nutrients you’ll find in fermented vegetables and fruits depends first off on the fruits and vegetables you’re using. High-quality, biodynamically grown, organic, and similar farming methods will make a difference in how much nutrition is there. The type of fruits and vegetables themselves will also dictate which nutrients are most likely to be available. Whatever you begin with, you’ll find a lot of it in the finished ferment and accompanying juice.

Beyond that, though, fermenting vegetables increases their nutritional value. Digestive enzymes, which have been one of the supplement industry’s latest hot-topic, are produced in both the fermentation and pickling processes. Those enzymes support our microbiome in doing it’s work. In a healthy intestinal tract, the microbiome and gut have plenty of digestive enzymes to break down foods, stimulate absorption and help food along by triggering better peristalsis, which is the little contractions in the intestinal tract that keeps matter moving at a steady pace. When you don’t have enough digestive enzymes, you can experience symptoms like bloating, poor absorbtion, gas, a heavey or leaden feeling after eating, and potentially either excessive weight loss or weight gain. Other potential symptoms can include anxiety, depression, irritability, and similar moody conditions. The problem with taking digestive enzymes as a supplement is that you’re not really fixing the problem.

Fermented foods can be a part of shifting your digestive enzyme balance toward better digestion. The key is, you’ve got to have a healthy colony of friendly bacteria to help you make use of the results of those digestive enzymes to create a truly healthy digestive system. Fermented foods help us to establish both the healthy colony and an environment in which they’ll thrive, which in turn triggers our bodies to bump-up our own digetive enzyme production. There may be some folks who will do well to spend their lives taking digestive enzymes in supplement form, but most of us are quite capable of producing enough of our own to live a long and healthy life. Fermented foods can help us build and maintain the environment we need to do just that.

Beyond live cultured probiotics and digestive enzymes, fermented foods help make available nutrients more absorbable for us. Vitamin B-12, for instance, is more bioavailable in foods like tempeh as a result of the fermentation process. Tofu and soybeans on their own contain lower levels of this vitamin than does tempeh due to the process used for fermenting tempeh.

Pickles and Fermented Foods – What does Traditional Herblism say?

Traditional herbalism classifies pickles and fermented foods as sour, potetially with a little sweet, salty, and bitter. Your TCM or Ayurvedic practitioner is more likely to recommend pickles if you’re underweight or need to stimulate digestive activity. The sour flavor that’s the stronger medicine in pickles boosts digestion and absorption while supporting the healthy production and release of bile by the liver an gallbladder. Fermented foods do a beter job of hiding the bitter flavor under their sour, and are thus likely to be more highly recommended to folks who need to lose weight, shed toxins, or better support the liver’s work in breaking-down and eliminating certain chemicals, like stress hormones and estrogens. From a more energetic perspective, Fermented foods help drain the system of heat and are thus a little more strongly cooling than pickles…unless you’re pickling something that’s got a lot of bitter in it.

The best advice Traditional Herbalism is likely to offer beyond just plain eat your ferments and pickles is to offer ideas for good herbs and spices to include in those ferments to support better digestion overall. Consider adding any (or all) of the following to your next fermented or pickled adventure:

  • Fennel or Dill or Star Anise to stimulate peristalsis.
  • Cinnamon or Cayenne or Ginger for their rubifacient circulatory improving qualities.
  • Garlic or Onion for their anti-bacterial and immune-supporting qualities.
  • Thyme or Monarda or Oregano to help reduce excess yeast and microbes and support the immune system.
  • Turmeric or Clove to reduce systemic inflammation.

Peristalsis is the little muscle contractions that move food through your entire intestinal tract. When Peristalisis weakens or stalls out, you may experience more gassiness, including either burping, farting, or both. Bloating is another potential effect as could be constipation. Herbs that support healthy peristalsis are described as carminitivie. Typically, carminitive herbs have a little bitter or sour as part of their flavor prfile. They may also have some anti-microbial action.

Rubifacient means heating or increasing circulation. Digestion improves when there is plenty of circulation, particularly to the capilaries lining the gut walls. When we speak of heating our digestion or stoking our digestive fire we’re talking in part about improving the bloodflow to the digestive system and particularly to the intestinal tract. When circulation is poor, we tend to experience poor absorption of nutrients, have a harder time digesting fats, and may experience diarrhea, constipation. Rubifacient herbs help improve the blood flow along our digestive tract.

Immune support in the digestive tract works in part by creating balance to the microbial colonies in our micriobiome and in part by easing stress to the system which in turn eases stress on our nervous system. Herbs from the Mint and Onion families generally encourage growth of the healthy microbes and discourage of the unhealthy microbes. In the context of the digestive system, they help our bodies manage the natural yeast and bacterial colonies of our microbiome. Folks who struggle with chronic or systemic candida or are prone to a variety of bacterial infections may be helped by these plant families. Many of the herbs and foods in these families are also rubifacent and some of them are anti-inflammatory and carminative as well as supportive of the liver and gallbladder, which govern the release of bile and thus have a huge hand in helping us digest and absorb nutrients.

Inflammation in the digestive system can create a whole set of problems, the most obvious of which can be chronic diarrhea, constipation, gas and bloating, and similar symptoms. Conditions like IBS/IBD, Leaky Gut, Crohn’s Disease, and related chronic digestive disorders generally include inflammation in the digestive system. Many, many other conditions that don’t appear to be as clearly related to digestion, however, can be connected with inflammation in the digestive tract as well as elsewhere. We’re just beginning to see more research on the links between inflammation and just about every chronic disease or condition modern humans face. We don’t know whether inflammation is caused by those conditions or if it’s the cause of them, but we do know that inflammation typically accompanies them. Herbalists use plants with antioxidants to help reduce inflammation as well as those that have been used tradionally for reducing inflammation even if we have not yet isolated the chemical mechanism they’re using to do so.


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