When we think of dementia—or the loss of memory we typically associate with aging—it’s unlikely that most of us think of fermented foods. But probiotic-rich foods, which are foods that contain naturally-beneficial microorganisms like bacteria and certain yeasts, may have an important role in the prevention, and even treatment, of this brain disease.
For many years, science led us to believe that we had little control over our brain health and its functioning. Dementia was thought to be the inevitable result of aging. But, there is a growing body of research linking what we eat, how we live, how stressed we are and how much we challenge ourselves intellectually, to our brain health and memory.
While many people may be aware that purple grapes, blueberries, walnuts or flax seeds are brain-boosting foods, few are aware that one particular fermented food is standing out from the crowd as a brain health superfood. No, it’s not yogurt, although yogurt with live probiotic cultures may be beneficial to the brain as well. The brain-booster extraordinaire may come as a surprise: kimchi. Kimchi is a fermented blend of cabbage, garlic, onions or scallions, ginger, red pepper or chili peppers and is eaten as an appetizer or condiment.
Scientists have identified a whopping 970 different bacterial strains in kimchi. Compare that to the one or two, or occasionally three, strains of probiotics found in most brands of yogurt. Of course, not all kimchi has that many different strains. One strain in particular, Lactobacillus plantarum, which is found in kimchi, is a research-proven antioxidant. The brain is quite vulnerable to free radical damage that occurs as we age, as we eat harmful foods or beverages, as we are exposed to harmful substances in the air we breathe or if we experience a traumatic brain injury. Free radicals are unstable molecules that can damage healthy cells and tissues while antioxidants are substances that neutralize free radicals thereby preventing them from damaging healthy cells in the brain. In a study published in the online medical journal PLoS One, the probiotic, Lactobacillus plantarum, demonstrated antioxidant activity stronger than other probiotics.
In a study published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology, researchers tested probiotics that were extracted from kimchi to determine whether they may have any ability to protect against memory loss. One of the probiotics found in kimchi, known as Lactobacillus pentosus var. plantarum C29 showed potent ability to protect the brain against memory loss. And, fortunately you don’t have to remember its name to benefit from its memory-protective effects. Kimchi is the only source of this particular probiotic strain I am aware of. The scientists concluded that kimchi and this probiotic “may be beneficial for dementia.”
Obviously more research needs to be conducted, but considering that there are no known side effects other than additional health benefits of eating kimchi, I consider it a great dietary addition, especially if you are experiencing memory issues or are trying to prevent them. In a study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, kimchi was shown to reduce cholesterol levels and obesity and have anti-cancer effects, among other benefits.
Not all kimchi is created equally. Be sure to choose one that contains “live cultures” and has not been pasteurized. You should find it in the refrigerator section of your health food or grocery store. Organic options are best as pesticides used in the growing of vegetables significantly reduces the beneficial bacterial counts in fermented foods.