by Betsy Hicks and John Hicks, MD

One glance at a person’s face can tell volumes to the discerning eye. Over the past few years, I have traveled extensively visiting six of seven continents. During my travels, I look with great interest into the faces of dozens of diverse nationalities hosting an array of shades, shapes and colors. From careful attentiveness, I discover and notice significant patterns pertaining to the general health of countries and cultures and the foods they eat. In the Middle East eyes sparkle in complement to pure, sun-kissed fresh vegetables and unprocessed beans.  In Thailand dazzling teeth glisten from a naturally gluten, dairy, and preservative free diet. In Italy, complexions shine in appreciation of the benefits of heart-healthy fats. Certainly, there are exceptions in all generalizations, yet here in the United States, the exception may be the rule! The standard American diet obscures the luster of vibrant good health in a growing population that is both overfed and undernourished! 

It is apparent that in this country money and power create a persuasive and unhealthy food industry that uses shrewd marketing tactics profitable yield incentives. Both tradition and taste are eagerly sacrificed and cast off in favor of the convenient and cut-rate! In our day of unlimited facts and endless information, many North Americans are critically limited when it comes to understanding and eating whole foods. It is not unusual for me to meet young adults from many different places who have never eaten a fresh vegetable and don’t realize that fruit does not have to come from a can. Even when informed, good quality wholesome foods seem expensive and difficult to find, while empty processed foods are well disguised, budget-friendly and abundantly plentiful. Processed and synthetically modified foods are highly marketed as being the best source of vitamins and minerals while being nothing more than the emperor’s new clothes, an eggshell disguised as an egg. For example, the once vital dairy industry now offers overly pasteurized, chemical laden milk depleted of necessary digestive enzymes, which render it indigestible and unusable to the body. Yet, many drink adulterated milk erringly confident that they are choosing the best way to meet their calcium needs. Additionally, raw milk the healthier alternative is now extremely difficult to obtain if you don’t own the cow! We are at a crossroads in our country as we consider that the children growing up today may be the first generation with a shorter life expectancy than their parents. As health and vitality are built from the inside out, it is time to look closely at what we are eating and being fed.

Food enters the gastrointestinal tract and begins a long journey through the body to become fuel and nutrition for all living cells. Everything we consume must be metabolically changed and broken down to a usable nutrient or identified as waste and eliminated. When digestion and elimination are compromised toxins and waste are stored in tissues and fat cells.

Many factors affect the performance of digestion including the type of food eaten, digestive enzyme activity and the condition of the internal gastrointestinal environment. A key element in the health of the gut and consequently the immune system is the presence of probiotics.

Probiotics mean “for life” which is a significant clue to the role they play. They are live microorganisms, consisting of hundreds of beneficial bacteria and yeasts. Found all over the body they are especially abundant in the intestinal and respiratory tracts.  Conversely, pathogenic organisms are also present. It is suggested that there are as much as three pounds of microorganisms residing in the body. Probiotics assist in regulating many metabolic functions within the body’s various systems. A healthy balance between the good and the bad keep the body in optimal health. Friendly flora control pathogen levels and keep them from moving throughout the body, building colonies and creating disease. They also strive to control bodily pH to provide a thriving environment for themselves, while limiting the growth of their pathogenic counterparts. Wherever there is an imbalance, infection and disease can occur. Pathogenic bacteria such as Salmonella or Shigella for example, when given the upper hand will cause dysentery and severe diarrhea. However, these symptoms and consequences can be greatly lessened and even abated when there is enough probiotic protection in the gut. Furthermore, food poisoning, epidemics and pandemics become rampant in large groups of people when beneficial microflora is unable to protect against stronger more virulent pathogens.

Probiotics exist as many different species. Within each species, there are a variety of strains, for example, lactobacillus acidophilus, lactobacillus casei, and lactobacillus bulgarius.  Each species and strain can have a distinctive action and response on the body. These actions can be quite different from what is seen in laboratory testing. The specific action in the body will indicate whether or not an individual strain is helpful to you and more importantly, under what conditions it is helpful.

Additionally, there are multiple varieties of beneficial yeasts. A greater number of dissimilar species and strains offer better protection and activate a stronger immune response. Thus when considering supplementing, it is favorable to take probiotics that offer a wide variety. Furthermore, it is helpful to consider that many encapsulated probiotics are transient strains. This means that they need to be taken on a continual basis as they do not self-populate or colonize.

Food is digested and assimilated primarily in the small intestines. A protective barrier of epithelial tissue lines the lumen or inner wall of the gastrointestinal tract. These highly specialized cells fit closely together and host multiple tight junctions to prevent unwanted substances and partially digested foods from leaking into the bloodstream. Alternately, they allow much needed nutrients absorbed through the villi, to be picked up by circulating blood and carried around the body to nourish all cells and tissues.

Epithelial cells use cell memory to distinguish between beneficial and non-beneficial organisms. Ideally beneficial bacteria begin to colonize in an infant during the birthing process and later through breast milk. If however, pathogens outweigh friendly flora at this critical, initial stage of development, epithelial cells may fail to make the distinction between what is beneficial and what is not. If this occurs, an environment is established where pathogenic organisms thrive without restraint.

Probiotics offer protection by creating an additional barrier on top of the epithelial layer. Distinct strains of probiotic organisms make contact with the epithelial cells and trigger different responses in them to bring forth a variety of supportive reactions. For example, beneficial yeasts clean up partially digested foods that inadvertently leak into the bloodstream and thus protect against food sensitivities and autoimmune disease. However, when there is an overgrowth of yeast in the system, Candida occurs. This leads to symptoms such as sugar cravings, weight gain, mood imbalances, headaches to name but a few. Yeast overgrowth can be prompted by a diet high in sugar and refined, processed foods. Moreover, antibiotics and antifungal medications kill healthy probiotics causing further imbalance and loss of protection. If probiotic colonies are not repopulated, various strains become extinct and pathogenic bacteria and yeasts take over like weeds in an untended garden.

In addition to the vital role probiotics play in digestion and assimilation of nutrients, they are considered the immune system’s first line of defense. Residing in the lungs, nose, mouth and sinuses they encounter primary exposure to foreign invaders. Also, they identify and interpret many pathogens present in the body and communicate pertinent information to all aspects of the entire immune system. Additionally, they help to limit and control pathogenic populations.  Along with probiotics, surveillance B Lymphocyte cells assist in identifying and controlling pathogens.

Signal transduction is a process of intracellular communication that elicits a direct response by the immune system for the purpose of clearing infected cells. Probiotics and lymphocyte cells use protein molecules called cytokines to inform the rest of the immune system about the weaknesses and strengths of specific pathogens so eliminative efforts can be adequately coordinated and carried out. Additionally, specialized T and NK cells identify surface markers on cells in the body and label those cells for cleaning or destruction. A molecular signal or vibrational message is sent into the cells instructing them to either to clear itself from the replicating pathogens and begin new processes or destroy itself entirely.

Cytokine signals bring forth either a cell-mediated response or an antibody response from the immune system. An antibody response involves lymphocyte cells and antibody production, while a cell-mediated response involves NK and T cells. These cytotoxic (cell-killing) cells activate whenever infected cells are present. An antibody response occurs when bacteria is free and floating, whereas a cell-mediated response is necessary when bacteria is penetrating through membranes into the heart of the cells. Probiotics are essential to this process, as when present in inadequate amounts, the immune system will elicit an antibody response erroneously. This may lead to continuous antibody overproduction. Similar to a teeter tooter, when the antibody production side of the immune system is overactive, suppression of the cell mediated side of the immune system occurs. The long-term potential is a predisposition towards autoimmune disease as the body begins to produce antibodies against substances and tissues normally present in the body. For example, certain chronic inflammatory diseases, such as colitis, celiac and rheumatoid arthritis are examples of an autoimmune response to an overproduction of antibodies.

Many aspects of Autism such as food sensitivities, nutrient mal-absorption, poor weight gain, lack of focus and concentration as well as hyperactive immune responses are strongly and favorably addressed by building up probiotic presence in the body. Enzymes and proteins, as well as vitamins and minerals, are optimally absorbed at specific ph ranges. Outside of these narrow parameters enzymes and proteins can be inactivated and minerals and vitamins unabsorbed. While there are different ph levels for different parts of the body, an overall range of between 6. 4 and 7.2 is considered healthy. For when the body is too acidic, nutrients are not absorbed regardless of how healthy the diet.

It is also vital to create a strong probiotic presence beyond the gastrointestinal tract as bacteria can travel and establish colonies throughout the body. For example, E.coli normally resides within the intestines. However, it can be discharged in the stool and attach itself to the perineum. Once there it may travel to the urethra, settling in the urinary tract to create an infection.

As we take a closer look around the world to indigenous people with an extensive history of longevity and health, we are introduced to a diet abundant in keifer drinks and a wide variety of cultured foods. The Japanese diet boosts Miso, the Korean, kimchi, the Indian and Middle Eastern, chutney, the Southern and Eastern European, yogurt, and the Northern European sauerkraut. These traditional foods have been long promoting health and wellness. The first known case of fermentation dates back some eight thousand years. Fermented foods developed as a means of preserving fresh foods beyond their growing season but have since advanced to a place of medicinal nutrition.

Dr. Shinichiro Akizuki director of Saint Francis Hospital in Nagasaki during the Second World War theorized that miso helps protect against radiation. (1) He and his staff worked with bomb victims just a few miles from where the atomic bomb was dropped, without suffering any of the typical effects of radiation. This he attributed to drinking miso soup daily. Moreover, in 1972 a group of researchers discovered that miso contains dipilocolonic acid, an alkaloid that chelates and eliminates heavy metals. Further, in the 1980’s a medical research group from Tohoku University in Japan found that miso also contains ethyl ester, which acts as an anti-mutagen counteracting substances that change genetic material especially nicotine. Ethyl ester is only formed during fermentation. Of further interest is a study conducted by Seoul National University claiming that chickens infected with avian flu, recovered after eating kimchi. In May 2009, the Korea Food Research Institute, Korea’s state food research organization, also conducted a larger study on 200 chickens, which supported the theory that it boosts chickens’ immunity to the virus. (2)

The benefits of cultured foods and beverages include:

  1. Aids digestion and assimilation of nutrients from foods. 
  2. Protects against and improves food sensitivities such as lactose intolerance, gluten intolerance, constipation, yeast infections, allergies and asthma which have all been linked to lack of beneficial bacteria.
  3. Restores the balance of good beneficial bacteria in the body.
  4. Raw fermented foods are rich in enzymes to assist with digestion and reduce stress on body processes.
  5. Fermented foods increase vitamin content and flavor.
  6. Preserves food for longer life.
  7. Provides continual source of probiotics that is inexpensive and easy to make. 
  8. Provides a wide variety of digestive and other enzymes.

Culturing or fermenting allows healthy bacteria to convert sugars and carbohydrates into organic acids which act as preservatives. Foods containing lactic acid provide cofactors that support and improve cell energy. From the many choices available, kefir drinks and cultured vegetables are a great introduction to the world of fermented foods as they host a variety of probiotic strains. Water keifer grains digest added sugar and release a probiotic byproduct into the liquid. Similarly, dairy keifer grains consume the lactose in milk and produce strains into the milk. However, where casein issues exist, water kefirs rather than dairy are the obvious answer. Likewise culturing raw vegetables allow naturally occurring beneficial bacteria to grow and flourish. These powerfully immune strengthening foods are full of many different strains of probiotics, both bacteria and yeasts. These foods promote a strong active response from the immune system to invading pathogens. Yet, commercial, heated fermented foods kill bacteria and enzymes and so do not provide probiotic support. Unlike many isolated probiotic supplements that dissipate over time, probiotics found in naturally cultured vegetables, and keifer drinks grow and colonize controlling pathogenic organisms to regain control of the internal ecosystem long term.

Fermentation lends benefits to soy in the form of tempeh and miso. Unfermented soy contains phytic acid, which binds to minerals preventing their absorption. It also contains enzyme inhibitors that interfere with protein digestion and several anti-nutrients that depress thyroid function and cause red blood cells to clump, interfering with proper oxygen absorption.

Many children on the autism spectrum have difficulty digesting and assimilating nutrients sufficient to meet their needs. They also tend to have difficulty converting B vitamins in supplements to their active, usable forms. Cultured vegetables contain small amounts of predigested B vitamins that are highly bioavailable and easily used by the body. Together with enzymes and probiotic bacteria, cultured vegetables and kefir drinks assist in the digestion and assimilation of all other foods eaten. A few teaspoons at the beginning of a meal will greatly enhance digestion and assimilation. For focus and concentration concerns, cultured vegetables and kefir drinks aid in the control and balance of yeast.

For concern with the use of sugar added to water kefir and its tendency to increase yeast and stress the pancreas, it is helpful to consider that the sugar is broken down to fructose, which has a low glycemic index. Low glycemic foods break down more slowly and are less likely to create sugar highs and lows. They are often recommended for those who have diabetes.  Moreover, longer fermentation results in more sugar being broken down. A standard 48-hour fermentation should consume close to eighty percent of available sugar. It is always prudent to start off drinking small amounts to allow the body time to adjust. A second fermentation can be accomplished by removing the kefir grains while leaving the liquid unrefrigerated for an additional 24 to 48 hours. Fresh or dried fruit can be added for taste. Coconut water can be used instead of pure filtered water for its anti-viral, antibacterial and anti-yeast properties. However, it is advisable to have back up kefir grains on hand as anything anti-bacterial in nature will naturally weaken the pro-bacterial properties of the grains. It is possible to revitalize your kefir grains with mineral-rich molasses.

Infants gain the benefits of cultured vegetables from nursing or from drinking the juice of the vegetables. Multiple studies from all over the world show that babies who gain probiotics in this way develop fewer allergies and cases of asthma than children without probiotic supplementation.

Taking oral probiotics continues to be a fast beneficial remedy to a variety of ailments aside from simply maintaining excellent health, however, an assortment of lacto-fermented foods should be a daily habit in everyone’s diet.


  1. Just saw a news article the other day about how many of our kids are suffering from depression and anxiety. I also know of two youth who have suicide ideation. I continue to hope/pray that there is continuing study in the scientific community on gut flora and the impact of fermented foods and probiotics on the gut. I firmly believe that so many would find help with depression and anxiety by taking probiotics and eating fermented foods. I’m not arguing against supplements or medications to help, but believe we need to look beyond Big Pharma as our only answer.


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