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Is There Anything Eating Pickles Can't Cure?

Fermented foods — from sauerkraut to kimchi to yogurt — are known to protect intestinal health, improve mental health and even help prevent cancer. But scientists say we need to be careful about overstating the benefits.

SuckerPunch Pickles​

SuckerPunch Pickles

Margit Kossobudzka

WARSAW — They include sauerkraut, dill pickles, pickled beets, and kimchi … but also kefir and sourdough bread. These foods — traditional to Polish, Korean, and West African cuisines — are trending across the world thanks to their diverse health benefits.

Pickles, or fermented foods, are technically defined as "food or beverages produced by the controlled growth of microorganisms and the transformation of food ingredients by enzymatic action." Aside from the traditional pickled vegetables found in jars, the benefits of fermented foods can also be found in any foods which are made using lactic acid fermentation — even bread made on a fermented base, such as sourdough.

Research shows that fermented foods can not only strengthen gut health but also boost mental health and well-being, improve mood, and help foster a healthy immune response.

Mind-Body Benefits

One of the main health benefits of fermented foods is that they are rich in beneficial microorganisms and metabolites: substances produced by bacteria during fermentation, which are crucial to maintaining a healthy gut. Fermented foods contain not only live bacteria but also non-digestible ingredients that stimulate the growth or activity of beneficial bacteria in the large intestine.

The bacteria contained in fermented foods strengthen the intestinal walls, preventing their contents from entering and contaminating the bloodstream. Among other benefits, this is known to help avert “leaky gut syndrome,” a condition affecting the intestinal lining whose symptoms include bloating, cramps, and food sensitivities. Research also shows that pickled foods can help treat allergies, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and even eczema. Eating fermented milk products specifically has been linked to lower risks of bladder cancer as well. The health benefits are so great that in some circles, fermented milk products and yogurt are recommended for children as young as six months old.

In Poland, the end of summer is “pickling season.”

Research undertaken by Professor Tim Spector, an epidemiologist at King’s College London (whose team created the Zoe COVID Symptom Study smartphone application in March 2020), discovered a relationship between diet and the risk of severe illness from COVID-19. The study, which was co-led by scientists from Harvard and covered nearly 600,000 participants, showed that the risk of severe COVID-19 requiring hospital treatment was as much as 40% lower if people ate a healthy diet. Read: a diet rich in plant products and ... pickles. This is largely due to the positive impact of fermented foods on our gut microbiome, which is heavily linked to the body’s innate immune response — the body’s first line of defense against invaders.

The chemical compounds that form during the fermentation process have also been linked to positive changes in our mental health. Bacteria contained in fermented foods have cholesterol-lowering properties but also increase the level of serotonin, which stabilizes mood, regulates well-being, and eases anxiety. Regularly consuming fermented food products can also help improve the quality of your sleep.

pickles in jar

It is scientifically proven that fermented foods positive impact on our gut microbiome.

little plant

Natural Probiotics? 

Many of us use the term "natural probiotics" when referring to pickles. But is this accurate? I asked Professor Ewa Stachowska, M.D., a biochemist, and the head of the Department of Human Nutrition and Metabolomics of the Pomeranian Medical University in Szczecin, who admitted that though both can have similar health benefits, calling pickles a "natural probiotic" may be going a bit too far.

“There is a lot of confusion on this topic because the same types of bacteria that appear in fermented foods also appear in certain probiotics,”Dr. Stachowska told Gazeta Wyborcza’s podcast “Zdrowa Rozmowa” (Healthy Talk). “But the difference is — and this is a big difference — that a probiotic should include the specific strain of bacteria which was specifically tested for a particular purpose in clinical trials.”

“Of course, fermented foods are known for being beneficial to our wellbeing”, she added, “but when we talk about probiotics, we are talking about benefits observed in clinical settings in people with specific conditions, such as obesity, insulin resistance, or bowel dysfunction. We are saying that this specific strain of bacteria in this specific amount over this specific length of time worked in this specific way”.

According to Dr. Stachowska, aside from beneficial bacteria, fermented foods contain several bacterial metabolites, such as some types of vitamins and lactic acid — but they also include histamines, which can provoke negative health reactions in people suffering from certain digestive issues. This is why some people can, for example, have symptoms of bloating after eating sauerkraut. She recommends eating fermented foods daily in order to see health benefits, and taking probiotics when necessary for extra boosts.

What And Where To Eat 

Many traditional cuisines rely heavily on fermented foods.

In Poland, the end of summer is “pickling season” where Poles can and store dill pickles, beets, peppers, onions, and more in preparation for the winter months. Usually served as a side dish, these pickled vegetables are an easy and tasty way of preserving gut health. Fermented foods and drinks are also a popular part of West African cuisine, which, according to The Conversation, are rich in dietary fiber, protein, calcium, iron, and potassium.

a bowl of kimchi

Kimchi is the most common and important dish in Korea

Portuguese Gravity

Make Your Own Pickles 

Looking to incorporate some pickles into your diet? These quick recipes from Polish website Interia.pl show you how to enjoy their health benefits at home. Best of all, all of them are ready to enjoy in a week or less!

Pickled Tomatoes

Place washed cherry tomatoes tightly next to one another in a large jar, along with a few cloves of garlic, fennel, a bay leaf, and a piece of horseradish root.

Pour in brine made of 2 tablespoons of salt per one liter of water.

Cover the tomatoes and set aside for one week, after which they are ready to eat. These go especially well with pasta or salads.

Pickled Beetroots

Carefully peel well-washed beetroots and cut them into thick slices. Pack them tightly together in layers in a jar, adding a few cloves of garlic, laurel leaves, dill, and allspice. Pour over the brine, making sure to coat all of the vegetables. Cover and let sit for 6 to 7 days before serving.

If you also want to try a flavored beetroot juice from the pickles, place a slice of rye bread on top of the jar as a cover, which will add flavor and help the fermentation process. The juice and the pickled beetroots will be ready to enjoy after a week, and taste excellent as a side dish to potatoes and meat dishes, or in salads.

Pickled Cauliflower

Arrange washed cauliflower florets tightly in a large jar. Add pieces of cut fresh horseradish and ginger root, as well as allspice. Pour over the salt brine, cover, and pickle for 3 to 5 days. Pickled cauliflower can be used in salads, sandwiches, pasta dishes, on top of baked tarts, or other similar dishes.

When making these pickle recipes, make sure that the contents of your jar can mix with oxygen for a few days — cover the jar but don't seal it shut. This will allow the fermentation gasses to escape. After the first few days, close the jar tightly, which will help fully preserve the pickles.

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FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War

How The War Has All But Destroyed Gaza's Ailing Healthcare System

The health situation in Gaza is becoming more and more dire as Israel continues to bomb the enclave. Egyptian media Mada Masr takes a look at the history of the Palestinian health care system.

Photo of a doctor riding his bicycle past debris in Al-Bureij camp in central Gaza

A doctor rides his bicycle in Al-Bureij camp in central Gaza

Mostafa Hosny

Mosaab is 16 years old and is a leukemia patient, one of 13,000 cancer patients in the Gaza Strip who have been left without access to medical care since Israel began bombing the strip and cutting off access to water, fuel and other vital supplies. The carnage from Israel’s relentless bombing of Gaza has led to severe overcrowding in the few hospitals that are still operational, with thousands of wounded arriving daily.

“The situation is very bad. There is no medicine, no treatment, no hospitals, and we are unable to leave the house to treat my son. His condition is deteriorating, especially since he is a cancer patient and requires special care. We can’t find all of Mosaab’s medications for his lungs and stomach, antibiotics, and his chemotherapy drugs,” Mosaab’s mother tells Mada Masr. “Everything is cut off. There are no hospitals, no power transformers, no electricity, and we can’t treat him in Gaza or go to Haifa to continue his treatment.”

Before the recent attacks on Gaza, Mosaab was receiving treatment at the Turkish-Palestinian Friendship Hospital, which was bombed by the Occupation’s fighter jets. As a result of the airstrikes, the second and third floors of the building were destroyed in airstrikes. Then the hospital halted its operation as it ran out of fuel, the director of the foreign relations department of the Gaza Health Ministry, Mahmoud Radwan, tells Mada Masr.

Mosaab’s mother discovered her son’s illness seven years ago, which set her off on what has been a long journey to try to treat him outside of Gaza, one that thousands of other patients in the strip undertake due to the severe shortage of medical equipment and healthcare workers even before the current attack, which exacerbated the collapse of the health sector.

After Hamas won the 2006 legislative elections, Israel and Egypt imposed an air, land, and sea blockade on Gaza in 2007, restricting the movement in and out of the strip and imposing restrictions on the health sector, as many essential medical supplies suddenly became unavailable.

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