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Fermented Foods: Good for Your Brain?

Evan Richards, owner of local company Rejuvenative Foods, talks about the health benefits of raw cultured vegetables and the gut-brain connection.

Thirty years ago, Evan Richards founded Rejuvenative Foods in Santa Cruz.

As CEO of the longest standing raw cultured foods company in the country, Richards has learned a lot in the past three decades—enough to write a book about raw cultured vegetables, which he's working on—and he's come across some interesting discoveries. 

For one, eating fermented foods, and raw cultured vegetables in particular, may be vital to much more than just our gut, (the surface area of which, on average, is the size of a football field, according to doctor Randy Baker of Soquel.)

"Imagine a group of people that have smooth, easy digestion—consider their ability to use their brains effectively. Then compare that group of people with another whose digestion is not as optimal. We can all easily bet that those with better digestion will be able to think better," writes Richards.

Back in the 80's, Richards conducted a basic study which linked overall well being to the consumption of raw cultured vegetables.

The study, which ran in the Good Times newspaper, found mostly positive results from the sample of people who added raw cultured vegetables to their daily diet. They reported an ease in problems with constipation, gas, ulcers, and bloating, said Richards.

Richards deals in raw cultured vegetables, specifically, which are about as natural as you can get when it comes to fermented foods.

"One of the biggest differences between most fermented foods and raw cultured vegetables, is that fermented foods like yogurt and tempeh have been heated and inoculated," said Richards. "With cultured vegetables all of these micro flora are naturally present when they exist in nature, so when you culture them you are letting the natural micro flora do the fermentation as opposed to adding a purchased culture after you've killed all of the naturally present micro flora." 

But there may be even more to eating them than just an optimized digestive track: raw cultured vegetables actually contain neurotransmitters, and the gut actually processes them. One article states that the gut produces more serotonin, than our brain:

"Your gut serves as your second brain, and even produces more serotonin—known to have a beneficial influence on your mood—than your brain does," according to Doctor Natasha Campbell-McBride.

So what exactly is going on when we consume fermented foods, which are loaded with healthy flora? Well, one, they override the unhealthy flora which have been indicated in all kinds of diseases, from autoimmune diseases and allergies to increased cancer risk.

And as Richards is finding out, another interaction might be much more mental:

"Acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter, has been identified as a component of raw sauerkraut. As a neurotransmitter, acetylcholine has important effects on the central nervous system and on brain functioning (Hasselmo, 1995)," writes Richards in his book.

Acetylcholine plays a prominent role in learning. It's involved with synaptic plasticity, or, the connection between two neurons to change in strength, enhancing learning and the ability to form memories, according to Richards.

This neurotransmitter also plays a role in stimulation of muscle tissue and the brain's ability to send messages throughout the body. Choline, a building block of acetylcholine, promotes calmness, and controls the digestion of fats—so pile that kraut on your hot dog next time you indulge. And make sure it's raw kraut—the storebought, unrefrigerated version has been pasteurized and does not contain the beneficial enzymes and microflora. 

Of course, the benefits of these neurotransmitters and healthy strains of bacteria are completely lost if cooked, which is why Richards' products are all raw. 

The list of products he makes at Rejuvenative Foods is long, creative, and very delicious. From "live" salsa and kim chi, to raw sauerkraut and dessert butters, the products are versatile enough to add to a variety of foods, from rice and rice cakes to sandwiches, eggs, pizza, meat, omelets and much more.

Richards first got interested in raw cultured vegetables in 1977, when he read a book about rejuvenation secrets from around the world. At the time, a good friend of his had learned how to make raw cultured vegetables Dr. Ann Wigmore, an early health educator, nutritionist and whole and raw foods advocate.

"My friend taught me how to make cultured vegetables, and after about a week of eating them I thought, I should put this on the market," said Richards.

And the rest, is history.

Check out the Rejuvenative Foods website for more information on their benefits, how they are made, and the plethora of products offered.

For even further reading on the health benefits of fermented foods, see my recent Wellness Columnin the Santa Cruz Weekly.

David Jay Brown January 11, 2013 at 11:32 PM
Great article; fascinating information. One can also boost their acetylcholine levels by taking lecithin supplements, which naturally contain choline--and this can help with memory consolidation in the brain.

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