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Sauerkraut, a form of fermented cabbage, has been popular throughout Central Europe for hundreds of years. Sauerkraut combines one of the healthiest foods there is (cabbage) with one of the most beneficial and time-honored food preparation methods ever used (fermentation).
According to the Institute for Integrative Medicine at the University of Witten in Germany, sauerkraut is one of the most common and oldest forms of preserving cabbage and can be traced back as an important food source to the fourth century B.C.
What is Sauerkraut?
What is it that’s so special about fermented vegetables and foods? Fermentation simply refers to an ancient technique and perseveration method that naturally alters the chemistry of foods. Similar to cultured dairy products like yogurt and kefir, sauerkraut’s fermentation process produces beneficial probiotics that are now linked to improvements in immune, cognitive, digestive and endocrine function.
People have been using fermentation to preserve valuable vegetables and other perishable foods for long periods without the use of modern-day refrigerators, freezers or canning machines. Fermentation is the metabolic process of converting carbohydrates, like sugars, into either alcohols and carbon dioxide, or organic acids. It requires the presence of a carbohydrate source (like milk or vegetables, which contain sugar molecules) plus yeast, bacteria or both. The yeast and bacteria microorganisms are responsible for converting glucose (sugar) into healthy bacteria strains that populate your gut environment and help regulate many bodily functions.
Microbial fermentation occurs when the bacteria or yeast organisms are deprived of oxygen (which is why fermentation was first described as “respiration without air” by early French microbiologists that discovered the science behind the process). The type of fermentation that makes most foods “probiotic” (rich in beneficial bacteria) is called lactic acid fermentation. Lactic acid is a natural preservative that inhibits harmful bacteria growth.
Benefits of Sauerkraut’s Probiotics
First and foremost, sauerkraut’s live and active probiotics have beneficial effects on the health of your digestive tract — and therefore the rest of your body too. That’s because a very large portion of your immune system actually lives within your gut and is run by bacterial organisms, what you can think of as “your gut’s bugs” that live within your intestinal flora. Microbial imbalances have been associated with enhanced risks of various diseases, but luckily obtaining beneficial microorganisms from probiotic foods has repeatedly demonstrated health benefits in clinical settings.
After eating foods like sauerkraut that provide probiotics, these gut bugs take up residence on the lining and folds of your intestinal walls, where they communicate with your brain via the vagus nerve. They also act like your first line of defense against various harmful bacteria or toxins that enter your body. Some beneficial probiotic bacteria found in sauerkraut and other cultured veggies are more or less permanent residents because they form long-lasting colonies. Others come and go more quickly but still have important anti-inflammatory effects.
As described in a 2009 report published in The Indian Journal of Medical Microbiology, “the use of antibiotics, immunosuppressive therapy and irradiation, amongst other means of treatment, may cause alterations in the gut composition and have an effect on the GIT flora. Therefore, the introduction of beneficial bacterial species to the GI tract may be a very attractive option to re-establish the microbial equilibrium and prevent disease.”
A 2006 report published in The Journal of Applied Microbiology states that probiotic benefits from cultured foods include:
This is due to probiotics’ direct and indirect influences on various organs and systems, especially the rate at which your body produces inflammation and controls hormone production. The “good bacteria” and other organisms living within your gut might as well be considered an organ in their own right, because they’re critically important to the health of your brain, hormones, heart, lungs, liver and digestive organs (and, after all, contain the majority of your immune system).
Sauerkraut is very low-calorie, but as you can see it’s an anti-inflammatory food and is packed with benefits. Besides having probiotics to offer, sauerkraut is a good source of antioxidants and dietary fiber, thanks to its main ingredient: cabbage.
Even eating a small amount daily — just several tablespoons — provides a great source of nutrients, including vitamin K, vitamin C, calcium, potassium and phosphorus — and, of course, probiotics. As an added bonus, the proliferation of microorganisms in fermented vegetables enhances their digestibility and increases absorption of their various nutrients.
One reason you might want to stick to a smaller serving? It’s a bit high in sodium (with about 20 percent of your needs in every ½ cup serving) considering sea salt is one of the main ingredients.
A half-cup serving of sauerkraut (about 75 grams) has about:
1. Supplies Probiotics that Help Improve Digestion
Microorganisms present in sauerkraut, including those of the lactobacillus bacteria genus, essentially “feed” the good bacteria in your gut, which improves digestive health. Research shows that within sauerkraut, Lactobacillus plantarum is the predominant LAB bacteria strain that’s born during the fermentation phase.
We still have a lot to learn about the exact types of beneficial bacteria that grow within cultured foods, but for the first time, a 2003 report published in The Journal of Applied Environmental Microbiology demonstrated the complex ecology present in sauerkraut fermentations.
Because they can help lower the presence of toxins, inflammation and bad bacteria living within your digestive tract, probiotics bacteria are beneficial for reducing symptoms like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), constipation (yes, they help you poop!), diarrhea, bloating, food sensitives and digestive disorders.
We often hear that probiotic yogurt is one of the best foods to eat for better digestion and preventing illnesses, but non-dairy cultured foods like sauerkraut have the same effects.
In the process, sauerkraut and other fermented foods help you better absorb nutrients from the food you’re eating, regularly go to the bathroom and even help manage your appetite, thanks to their effects on hormones.
2. Improves Immune Function
Although most people don’t realize it, the gut is the organ that contains the majority of your immune system, and sauerkraut’s probiotics play a major role in regulating gut health. Beneficial bacteria can educate, activate and support the immune system.
Recent scientific investigations have supported the important role of probiotics as a part of a healthy diet that can provide a safe, cost-effective and natural approach that adds a barrier against many types of microbial infections. Research has shown that probiotics can be effective at fighting diarrhea, antibiotic resistance, Clostridium difficile colitis, various infections, inflammatory bowel diseases, constipation and even cancer. Lactobacillus rhamnosus strains have been proven beneficial on intestinal immunity and can increase the number of IgA and other immunoglobulins in the intestinal mucosa.
3. Reduces Inflammation and Allergies
Autoimmunity — one of the root causes of inflammation — is a state in which the body attacks its own tissues because it suspects that it’s being harmed by an outside “invader,” whether this is a food you’re sensitive or allergic to, toxins from household and beauty products, poor quality air, water, and so on.
Sauerkraut’s beneficial probiotics help increase and regulate NK cells, which are nicknamed “natural killer cells,” that control the body’s inflammatory pathways and take action against infections or food allergy reactions. This, in turn, can lower your risk for developing virtually every chronic disease there is, from heart disease to cancer.
4. Supports Cognitive Health and Mood
It’s not hard to image how our brain and digestive systems are connected — think of the last time you felt “sick to your stomach” or had butterflies in your belly from being nervous. Researchers are still learning about the fascinating and intimate relationship between your gut and brain, especially how this relationship is actually bidirectional, or a “two-way street.”
It’s not just that your mood can affect your digestion, but, it turns out that the health of your digestive system can also affect your nervous system, brain function and moods!
All of this is possible because of the vagus nerve, one of 12 cranial nerves that helps form the primary channel of information between the nerve cells in your intestinal nervous system and your central nervous system in your brain. Communication via the vagus nerve is impacted by the various populations of bacteria in your gut. Depending on what kind of bacteria are present in different proportions within your gut, different chemical messages can be triggered that impact your ability to learn, remember and sort information.
Probiotics are one of the natural remedies for mood disruption, like depression. In multiple human trials, supplementing with probiotic foods like sauerkraut led to an improvement in mood and reduction of depression symptoms, making it a valuable adjunctive (additional) therapy for depression.
In animals, probiotics such as sauerkraut have even been found to reduce some symptoms of anxiety and improve autism markers.
5. Provides Cancer-Fighting Antioxidants
Aside from the numerous benefits that sauerkraut’s probiotics offer, its main ingredient cabbage also has a lot going for it. Cabbage is a disease-fighting vegetable all on its own. Cabbage is among a group high-antioxidant foods and cruciferous vegetables known for being powerful cancer-fighting foods.
One reason cabbage and other cruciferous foods have protective effects is because they supply various antioxidants and dietary fiber. Cabbage has phytonutrients, including isothiocyanates and indoles. In laboratory settings, these have shown protection against cancerous cell formation and have positive effects on lowering inflammation.
Sulforaphane, a particularly potent member of the isothiocyanate family, is capable of increasing the body’s production of Phase II enzymes that can help fight free radical damage. This compound is found in cabbage, although it’s even more prevalent in broccoli and broccoli sprouts.
Although most sauerkraut is made from white or green cabbage, some varieties use red cabbage, too. Red cabbage has its own class of special antioxidant properties called anthocyanins. These flavonoid phytonutrients, which are what give blueberries and wine their deep colors, have strong antioxidant activities that help fight cardiovascular diseases, cancer and cognitive disorders.
Sauerkraut is native to Eastern Europe, especially places like Germany, Poland and Russia where cabbage is considered a staple ingredient, even the “quintessential vegetable.” Sauerkraut, which means “sour cabbage” in German, first made its way over to the Unites States in the 1700s. It’s been said that immigrants coming over to the Americas at this time on ships carried sauerkraut with them on their long journeys because the fermentation process was able to preserve abundant amounts of harvested cabbage and also provide important nutrients.
While fermentation might sound like a complicated process, it’s actually something that’s been practiced for thousands of years in one form of another in nearly every ancient population on Earth. Fermenting foods stops them from spoiling quickly, which is why it’s been a tried-and-true method for using up available vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes for thousands of years around the world.
For example, beneficial kefir is a cultured dairy product first created in Eastern Europe thousands of years ago, miso and natto are fermented soy products stemming from Japan, and kimchi is a traditional fermented Korean staple side dish. Fermentation is also used to make all types of yogurts that have “live and active cultures” and in the production of beer, wine and some sourdough breads too (where yeast converts sugar to carbon dioxide). Some records show that ancient Chinese populations were pickling (fermenting) types of cabbage over 2,000 years ago.
How to Make Your Own
The kind of sauerkraut you want to buy is the type that’s been prepared in the traditional way and is refrigerated in order to preserve the “live and active cultures.” These types can be found in health food stores and now in some larger grocery stores in the refrigerated section, not in room-temperature jars or cans.
Keep in mind that many commercial food manufacturers have tried to standardize the fermentation process in order to produce larger quantities of cultured foods in less time. The result is that many mass-produced foods that were traditionally fermented (including sauerkraut, pickles or olives, for example) are now just treated with large amounts of sodium and chemicals and then canned.
This type of product might be labeled “sauerkraut,” but it actually hasn’t gone through the proper process to develop probiotics. In some cases, cultured foods are also pasteurized to kill potentially harmful bacteria, which kills the probiotics we want in the process. Only true fermentation, without pasteurization, gives you the amazing probiotic enzymes, like lactobacillus for example, that have the benefits mentioned above.
Making sauerkraut is one of the most basic fermentation processes there is, so it’s a great place to start if you’re new to making your own cultured foods. All you need to make sauerkraut (or any fermented veggie for that matter) is simply the vegetable (in this case cabbage), water, salt and some patience! I have a homemade sauerkraut recipe if you’re ready to try it out.
Sauerkraut is a fermented food, full of beneficial probiotics to offer health boosts to not only your gut, but your immune system, mind and beyond. Fermented foods like sauerkraut may even aid your body in preventing cancer.
It’s been around for a long time, and the best way to use sauerkraut is by making your own or purchasing high-quality, refrigerated varieties. Try sauerkraut made from different cabbages to find the type you like best!
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