Though fermented foods like raw sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and sourdough bread have been staples in traditional menus of various cultures throughout the world for centuries, they are new to most who eat the Standard American Diet. In recent years, as information about the microbiome continues to spread–as well as the connection between gut health and skin health–fermented foods have made a comeback for many people looking to improve their gut health and clear up skin issues. But do fermented foods really help clear up skin issues? Are there any contraindications?

The connection between gut health and skin health is well-established. In fact, the gut microbiome is now considered a “new organ” by many scientists and medical professionals, as it plays such a vital role in our overall health. The gut microbiome consists of trillions of microbes–bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa–that live in our intestines, and it has a huge impact on our immune system, metabolism, and inflammation levels. When the gut microbiome is out of balance, it can lead to a host of health problems, including skin issues.

Fermented foods are a great way to increase the number of healthy bacteria in your gut, which can help to restore balance and improve gut health. In addition, fermented foods are high in probiotics, which are beneficial bacteria that have been shown to improve gut health, skin health, and overall immune function.

Fermented foods concept. Fermented, pickled, marinated preserved vegetarian food. Organic vegetables and fruits in jars with spice and herbs on white kitchen.

What are fermented foods?

Fermented foods are foods that have been fermented with bacteria, yeast, or a combination of both. During the fermentation process, these microorganisms break down the carbohydrates, proteins, and fiber in the food into lactic acid, alcohol, and carbon dioxide. This not only makes the food more digestible but also increases its nutrient content and helps to preserve it.

During the fermentation process, bacteria feed on natural sugars and starches in foods to develop acid, gas, or alcohol. Fermentation typically preserves food while increasing its digestibility and content of vitamins, enzymes, and beneficial bacteria.  The beneficial, or probiotic, bacteria found in fermented foods support the health of your digestion and inner ecosystem.

Depending on the particular food or beverage being fermented, the fermentation process may take days, weeks, or months. Fermentation was originally used as a means of food preservation to prevent spoilage before refrigeration was common. Today, it is widely recognized that fermented foods offer unique health benefits due to their natural and varied content of beneficial bacteria, which develops as food ferments.

fermented foods in glass jars

What cultures include fermented foods in their diets?

Fermented foods are a staple in many traditional diets around the world. In Asia, fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut are popular condiments used in cuisines from China to Germany. In Africa, fermented dairy products such as yogurt and kefir are common, as well as fermented grains like sourdough bread. In Latin America, fermented beverages like chicha and pulque are popular, as well as fermented meats like chorizo.

Today, you’ll find those foods becoming widely available regardless of geographic location. Look for fermented sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, kombucha, miso, natto, tempeh, and kefir as examples of fermented foods.

Assortment of various fermented and pickled foods

Make sure your foods are actually fermented–not pickled for best results.

Though fermented and pickled foods are both preserved with vinegar or brine, there is a big difference between the two. Pickled foods are cucumbers, peppers, onions, and other vegetables that have been soaked in vinegar or brine for a short period of time (usually less than 24 hours). Fermented foods are made by fermenting the food for a longer period of time (usually several days to weeks) with bacteria or yeast. As a result, fermented foods are lower in vinegar and have a more sour taste than pickled foods.

Figuring out which foods are truly fermented, as opposed to pickled in vinegar or pasteurized to remain shelf-stable, takes a little examination. Look for pickled foods that have been fermented in a salt water brine rather than vinegar, and choose products that are stored in the refrigerated section of your market to sustain their living bacteria. On the label of these products, you may see words like, ‘active,’ ‘live,’ ‘fermented,’ ‘cultured,’ and ‘probiotic.’

Fermented preserved vegetarian food concept. Sour sauerkraut, pickled carrots, pickles, pickled celery glass jars on a wooden kitchen table.

Can fermented foods really clear up skin issues?

“A diet rich in fermented foods enhances the diversity of gut microbes and decreases molecular signs of inflammation, according to researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine.” Regularly eating fermented foods can boost the health of your digestive system and positively affect your immunity, absorption of nutrients, weight, moods, and skin. 

There is a growing body of evidence to support the skin and health benefits of fermented foods. Fermented foods have been shown to improve gut health, skin health, and immunity. They can also help to reduce inflammation and protect against harmful bacteria. If you’re looking to improve your gut health and clear up your skin, fermented foods are a great place to start!

Probiotics food background. Korean carrot, kimchi, beetroot, sauerkraut, pickled cucumbers in glass jars. Top view.

Are fermented and pickled foods safe for everybody?

Though fermented foods are generally safe and healthy, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, fermented foods can be high in sodium, so if you are on a low-sodium diet, you may want to limit or avoid them. Second, fermented foods can sometimes cause digestive issues like gas and bloating in some people. If you experience these symptoms, try eating fermented foods in small amounts and gradually increasing your intake. Finally, if you have a weakened immune system or are pregnant, it’s important to talk to your doctor before eating fermented foods, as they can sometimes do more harm than good.

People with mold sensitivities, or known or suspected overgrowth of candida or other pathogenic or opportunistic microbes (or who have SIBO–small intestine bacterial overgrowth or SIFO–small intestine fungal overgrowth) should avoid fermented foods, as the high levels of yeast in these foods can aggravate their conditions. People with histamine sensitivity should also avoid fermented foods.

If you have any symptoms of gut dysbiosis or experience chronic digestive distress or aren’t sure if fermented foods are right for you, it’s a good idea to consult with a naturopathic or functional medicine doctor or nutritionist who can best advise you on your diet.

Probiotics food background. Korean carrot, kimchi, beetroot, sauerkraut, pickled cucumbers in glass jars.

Do you want to learn more about how certain foods affect the skin?

Do you want to learn strategies to educate your clients about topics like this, and integrate healthy food choices into their diets? Check out our professionally accredited Certified Nutritional Aesthetics Practitioner® Training Program!