What is Fermentation? Does It Have A Place In AFS Recovery? – Part 1

By: Dorine Lam, RDN, MS, MPH



Herb Basics

Herbs can be fermented, releasing medicinal properties that can help adrenal fatigue - read more to find out what is fermentationWhat is fermentation? Herbs have been added to foods to round out their flavors for thousands of years, and just like the process of fermentation, they also have some fascinating health benefits. They contain antioxidants, essential oils that have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, vitamins, phytosterols, and other unique compounds, which can have positive effects on various diseases. Herbs can play a significant role in a treatment plan for Adrenal Fatigue sufferers, as they can be considered when nutrients such as magnesium, vitamin B and other trace minerals have failed to bring about complete recovery, or in other special situations, such as where an individual may have adverse reactions to the supplements.

Let us briefly consider a few of the more well-known herbs, such as:

  • Holy basil which has been found to reduce blood sugar levels in diabetics.
  • Certain compounds in garlic can bring reduction in total cholesterol and blood pressure.
  • Curcumin, in combination with other antioxidants in the turmeric, have anti-amyloid and anti-inflammatory properties, which are thought to be effective in delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

What is Fermentation?

What is fermentation is a common question. The fermentation of foods is an ancient practice that is known to many cultures throughout the world. Our ancestors fermented food for various reasons, ranging from food preservation coming off an abundant summer harvest to last throughout the winter months, to improving the taste and quality of the food. Each region of the world has its own unique fermented cuisine that is a staple in that particular culture, for example, in Asia, foods such as miso, tempeh, kim chi, tamari, and fermented fish sauce are in common use; Europe has sourdough, yogurt, sauerkraut, and American traditions include pickles and relishes, to name just a few.

During the fermentation process, an agent (usually bacteria and yeast) reacts with an organic substance to break it down into simpler substances. Fermentation is employed in the leavening of bread, and for preservation techniques to create lactic acid in sour foods such as sauerkraut, dry sausages, kim chi and yogurt, or vinegar (acetic acid). Generally speaking, the longer a food product is left to ferment, the greater the health/medicinal benefits.

Take for example the double fermentation process of apple cider vinegar. Initially, the apples are pressed to create juice, which is fermented into cider. In the second fermentation, the cider turns into alcohol, which in turn becomes acetic acid, the preliminary compound of vinegar. This double fermentation not only retains all the nutritional benefits of the apples but has also created a myriad of new beneficial acids and enzymes.

Fermented foods were once consumed in greater quantities in everyday households. Modern day methods of food preparation, however, have supplanted this age-old practice due to an emphasis on convenience and the mass production of food items. While bread was traditionally made using wild yeast that was caught from the atmosphere to create sourdough necessary for the leavening of bread, modern methods now favor instant yeast that speeds up the bread making process. Sauerkraut and what is fermentationHowever, this fundamentally changes the nutritional value of the end product. Sauerkraut and other pickled foods were once cultured by being left out on the shelves at room temperature to naturally ferment using salt or whey, but now these food items undergo a fundamentally different process replacing natural fermentation with a combination of vinegar and preservatives to achieve the same acidic pickled flavor, however lacking the beneficial byproducts of fermentation.

Another ancient method of fermentation that is now regaining popularity is kefir-fermented beverages. Kefir is a cultured and microbial rich food that helps to restore the balance of bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract (GI). It contains strains of beneficial yeast and bacteria in a symbiotic relationship that gives kefir its antibiotic properties. Increasing in popularity amongst health conscious consumers, kefir is now widely available in two different kinds; milk kefir and water kefir. Both are similar in that they are probiotic rich beverages, however, water kefir is dairy free, making it a great choice for vegans and those with dairy sensitivities.

The Gastrointestinal Tract: The Hub of Health

The complex process of digestion begins as soon as food enters the mouth and then the stomach, whereby beneficial, harmful and neutral microbes coexist in the gastrointestinal tract (GI) to complete the digestive process. A healthy intestinal track is of paramount importance because the majority of our immune system is in our gut, most notably the beneficial bacteria that live symbiotically within the GI tract and fight off the harmful bacteria.

Certain intestinal microbes create organic acids (lactic and acetic acids) that tend to lower the pH of the intestinal contents. Along the GI tract there is a large mucosal surface, where microbes and foreign antigens are present that interact with important components of the immune system, which serves to stimulate the immune system. A healthy GI tract would have thick intestinal lining or villi, and the enterocytes are properly attached to each other, thereby decreasing the passage of bacteria or antigens from the intestine into the blood stream (this is also known as leaky gut). The shorter the length of the intestinal villi, the less nutrients the body is able to absorb, which can lead to malnutrition, and other digestive issues. This, in turn, can create a body that is less able to fight against infections, which can lead to villi destruction. This is a vicious cycle that can be disrupted with the consumption of fermented foods, in particular herbs, which seek to rebuild the GI tract through increased solubility and bioavailability of healing nutrients to assist with digestion and GI healing.

Fermenting Herbs: Why Are Fermented Herbs So Beneficial?

What is fermentation and its timeframe on Adrenal fatigueExploring what is fermentation is an interesting topic. Optimal intestinal health is critical to optimum health, as dysfunctional digestive issues can crop up subclinically and wreak havoc on the body as a sign prior to clinical onset of many chronic diseases. One of the most powerful and gentle tools available for healing and strengthening the gastrointestinal tract are fermented foods—and not just any foods, but herbs, which are powerhouses of nutrition and healing.

What is Fermentation Summary

Many people ask what is fermentation and why are fermented herbs so beneficial. When the unique medicinal properties of herbs are combined with the nutritional benefits of the fermentation process what results is an unlocking of additional potent healing properties that remain untapped if the herb is consumed in its natural state. These health benefits are made possible through the biotransformation of the herbs by fermenting agents, which results in herbal nutrients being more easily broken down (solubility) and more readily absorbed by the body (bioavailability). An example of this is the fermentation of herbs with kefir grains, as these grains contain beneficial yeast and bacteria that work together in a symbiotic relationship to separate out the sugars from the beneficial molecules contained in herbs. When the sugars present within the molecular structure of herbs are removed, the healing elements of the herb are heightened in their solubility and bioavailability within the body resulting in numerous health benefits such as: improved digestion and assimilation of nutrients, healthy metabolism, detoxification, increased vitality, improved energy and mood, a healthier inflammatory response, and balanced pH levels. These improvements in health are attributed to the following processes that occur when fermenting herbs:

Read Part 2 Now!

© Copyright 2015 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.


Dr. Lam’s Key Questions

When a herb is fermented, the process helps to make the herb become more bioavailable for the body. Milk thistle is known to help improve liver function.

The fermentation process breaks down nutrients into minute pieces, so they are better assimulated.


Herbs can be fermented, releasing medicinal properties that can help adrenal fatigue - read more to find out what is fermentation

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33 Comments

  • Cecil says:

    Does it mean anything if I crave a lot of fermented foods?

  • Jessi says:

    As someone who has candida, should I refrain from using fermented products?

  • Linda says:

    Holy basil can reduce Blood pressure but cant it cause me to become stimulated as well?

  • John Challinor says:

    I find your article most interesting and beneficial however it does not appear to tell me how to ferment herbs. Do I fedment the dry herbs purchased fromthe health food store or do I nedto grow my own herbs. I see that kafir can beusedfor fermentation bjt how?? My wife andI would appreciate your advice.

  • Melody says:

    Does nutritional yeast have any benefits similar to that of the yeast from the fermentation process?

    • Dorine Lam RDN says:

      Nutritional yeast has been shown to help with diarrhea and lactose intolerance symptoms.

      Dorine Lam, RDN, MS, MPH
      Registered Dietitian and Senior Holistic Nutritionist

  • Logan says:

    Stumbled upon your article looking up fermentation. Glad I did.

  • Bobby says:

    How can you tell if a fermented supplement goes bad / spoils?

    • Dr.Lam says:

      Visual inspection is the best. If properly fermented, time is usually not a problem but an asset. Think of wine – the older it is, the better it generally is.

      Dr Lam

  • Candy says:

    Does fermented food products help candida overgrowth?

    • Dr.Lam says:

      It depends. Some people it helps. Others there is potential of making it worse. The overall clinical history and condition need to be correlated well

      Dr Lam

  • Julian says:

    Is this the same fermentation process that alcohol goes through? How is this easier on the body but alcohol isn’t?

    • Dr.Lam says:

      The fermentation process breaks down the natural compounds into smaller pieces for easier assimilation and thus potentiate the effect. Alcohol itself is higher toxic to the liver.

      Dr Lam

  • Kelly says:

    So will using fermented items help gut flora?

  • Kal K. says:

    Interesting article. I plan on sharing on my face book. Thanks.

  • Gigi says:

    In my home, I am Gigi. My grandbabies and family deserve the best life they can possibly have and I’m so happy to have found this website so I can improve our home. I strive for a healthy happy family and thanks to you I feel I am on the right tract! Thank you for your education Dr Lam! God Bless you all!

  • Stephanie says:

    Had no idea fermented foods were of such benefit. Would you recommend fermenting products ourselves?

    • Dr.Lam says:

      Yes, if you can do it. Every culture has some form of fermented products. like yogurt, kimshi, etc. If you have advanced AFS, you do have to be careful as some people cannot tolerate fermented products

      Dr Lam

  • KATHEE FERRIS says:

    Is sourdough OK for blood type A? THANKS

  • Sloan Hemmerson says:

    Should one eat fermented food daily ? If so when is the best time of day to do so ?

    • Dr.Lam says:

      many cultures in the world have daily habits of doing that, such as yogurt or kim chi. Whether one should take daily dose in the setting of AFS is highly depending on the clinical situation as everyone is different. Those in advance stages who are weak may have a hard time with this.

      Dr Lam

  • Lisa says:

    Is there a such thing as doing to much fermented products? If so what can happen?

    • Dr.Lam says:

      Anything in excess is not good for the body if it cannot process. Remember fermented food such as yogurt can also be included. This is especially if your body is weak, such as someone who as Candida, for example.
      Seek professional help you feel you are at risk.

      Dr Lam

  • Jasmine says:

    How much Holy basil would one want to take and how often would you want to take it to reduce blood sugars?

    • Dr.Lam says:

      Holy basil have sugar modulating effect by way of cortisol regulation. It itself does not have direct glucose metabolic effect

  • Sheka says:

    What supplements help bloating that comes from eating dairy products like cheese?

    • Dr.Lam says:

      Digestive enzyme can help break down dairy products so they are easier to be assimilated and prevent bloating. Quercetin and Bromaline can help reduce inflammation once the gas already has formed.

      Dr Lam

  • Barb says:

    I’ve heard fermented products can lead to congestion. Is this true in your experience?

    • Dr.Lam says:

      It is rare. More frequently, the body may have a high load of infectious agent that take the opportunity to be more aggressive when exposed to fermented products, leading to retoxification reaction. YOu do have to be careful of what kind of fermented products you put in the body. Read Retoxification & Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome for more information.

      Dr Lam