Why a Probiotic Pill Doesn’t Help the Microbiome, but Ferments are Key

/ / News, People, Science

Summer Bock compares the gut microbiome to a forest. If a fire destroys the forest and forest restoration is attempted by just introducing a few animals, the forest would never rebuild.

“That’s what we’re missing with probiotic pills,” Bock says, adding that relying on a probiotic pill to fix the gut is like telling a few bacteria strains: “’You’re in charge of building our entire gut microbiome,’ you just can’t. if you’re just picking a few probiotics and saying ‘You’re the work horse, you’re going to do all of it,’ they can’t. You have to go think of this bigger picture ecosystem. When we use ferments, we’re bringing in some of the nutrition, the soil and even bringing in a greater variety of probiotics than what you find in most pills. …there’s a huge benefit of ferments that people are missing out on.”

A fermentationist, health coach and founder of Guts and Glory, Bock detailed how fermented foods can improve overall health at the Fairmentation Summit. She coined the word “gut rebuilding” and was the founder of the Fermentationist Certification Program.

Bock started fermenting after becoming incredibly sick. A trained herbalist, Bock began treating multiple food allergies, regular panic attacks and chronic exhaustion with herbs. This was long before terms like probiotics and gut microbiome were a regular part of diet discussions. But Bock was recommended by a naturopathic doctor to try taking probiotics, and “a lot of my symptoms started clearing up very quickly.”

Bock, though, is a purest, and wanted to know how she could ingest probiotics without taking a pill.

“What’s the whole food version of probiotics?” Bock said. “If I’m missing it and I’ve wiped it out with antibiotics, how did my ancestors get this into their body on a daily basis? That’s how I discovered fermented foods.”

So Bock started fermenting everything. During this experimentation process, Bock sold sauerkraut and kimchi from her fridge, launching her first sauerkraut company. She described sharing sauerkraut with her roommate’s friends, skeptics who would initially say “I don’t like it,” but would come back a week later and tell her “I have to come back and but it because I can’t stop thinking about that one bite.”

“This is an addictive healthy food, and I got fascinated by what is happening on your taste buds that makes your body go ‘I don’t like this right now,’ but your body recognizes that health benefit,” Bock said. “If there’s some communication happening through one little bite of food and that person can’t stop thinking about it and they want it, I’m still utterly fascinated by that today.”

Her favorite fermented food is kimchi “because it has all the benefits of lacto-fermented vegetables, it has all the great probiotics in it plus it has prebiotics, it has organic acids and the lactic acid which is a natural microbial.”

Studies during the avian flu outbreak found birds who ate kimchi were not contracting the bird flu. One microbiologist in South Korea found 11 of 13 chickens infected with avian flu who ate kimchi made a full recovery. All birds in the control group died.  

“Fermented foods are really powerful, and I think that what’s fascinating about them for me is they differ from just probiotics. They contain probiotics, but they also have the prebiotics. They have the entire ecosystem,” she said. “We eat it because it’s delicious, but we also eat it because that food assists us in some way.”

Probiotic-rich ferments “acts as a fertilizer” for the gut microbiome, killing off pathogenic organisms. Microbes grow best at room temperature, a temperature the health department defines as a danger zone because it’s the best temperature for pathogenic, food-born illness to grow.

“What we’ve found is, when there’s that acidic environment, these pathogenic food-borne illnesses can’t exist there. They don’t grow,” she adds.

Multiple nutrients are produced through fermentation, like Vitamin B and Vitamin K. Only a few organisms produce these vitamins, Bock notes. They are critical vitamins because they’re not absorbed easily through food. Bok calls them the “star players” of the microbiome. People with an imbalanced microbiome are often lacking in vitamins B and K.

If not fermenting their own food at home, consumers need to practice due diligence when purchasing fermented food brands, Bock says. Kombucha, she shares as an example, is a great “gateway ferment” for most people, but how much sugar is in it? Is it fermented naturally or are lab strains of probiotics added?

“You have to ask yourself, what is the major probiotic we’re talking about,” in the food you’re eating, Bock said. “Is it a naturally-occurring probiotic or a…patented, genetically-modified probiotic?”

Americans have a “Supersize” mentality, Bock said. People shouldn’t be consuming bowls of fermented foods every day.

“Remember that fermented foods are generally a condiment, especially the ones with live organisms, like kimchi and sauerkraut, natto,” she said. “So if you treat it as such, you’re maintaining the respect for these organisms and for these foods,” she said. “Your body knows what it needs.”