A traditional Korean dish that was once only found in specialty stores is now widely available on grocery store shelves.
And that’s a good thing, because scientists say kimchi can dramatically improve gut health. Let’s take a closer look at this popular food and its many health benefits.
This traditional Korean dish is made with salted, fermented vegetables including cabbage. In addition, you’ll also find seasonings such as sugar, salt, onions, garlic and chili pepper — which gives kimchi it’s spicy kick.
Traditionally, kimchi was stored in-ground in large earthenware jars to prevent the delicacy from being frozen during the winter months.1 In the summer, this storage method kept the kimchi cool enough to slow down the fermentation process.
Health Benefits From Fermentation
Kimchi undergoes a unique lacto-fermentation process that’s different from other fermented foods.2 Basically, it uses bacteria of the genus Lactobacillus to break sugars down into lactic acid, which gives kimchi its characteristic sourness.
If you take an interest in gut health you’ve probably hear of various strains of Lactobacillus. They are prominent among the friendly bacteria or micro-organisms called probiotics.
Hundreds of studies have shown the importance of probiotics to a healthy digestive tract. Researchers believe that it’s because of kimchi’s high levels of good bacteria and their impact on the digestive tract that this Korean food is now being linked to a host of health benefits. For example, studies show kimchi:
- Boosts the immune system
The Lactobacillus bacteria in kimchi have been shown to boost immune health. In one study, Lactobacillus plantarum, a bacteria strain common in kimchi, was injected into mice.3 Researchers found these test subjects had lower levels of an inflammatory marker (TNF alpha) than did the control group.
Scientists deduced that since TNF alpha levels are typically elevated during infection and disease, a decrease means the immune system is working efficiently.
- Slows aging
As we know, chronic inflammation is not only associated with many illnesses, it also accelerates aging. Could kimchi prolong cell life by slowing this process? Researchers were curious.
In one study, human cells treated with kimchi showed an increase in viability, which measures overall cell health.4 According to the study findings, “These results suggest that kimchi may delay the aging process by regulation of inflammatory process.”
- Improves brain health
Numerous studies have shown the connection between a healthy gut and a healthy brain. Kimchi’s positive effects on the good bacteria in the digestive tract can help support a sharp memory and a healthy brain.5
- Supports heart health
Kimchi can also reduce your risk of heart disease by fighting cardiovascular inflammation and reducing blood fats, research shows.6
In an eight-week study, researchers fed mice a high cholesterol diet. Then they tested fat levels in the blood and liver and found that those given kimchi extract had lower levels than those in the control group.7
Another study, this time in people, found that among 100 people eating 0.5 to 7.5 ounces of kimchi daily significantly decreased blood sugar, total cholesterol, and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels — all of which are considered risk factors for heart disease.8
The benefits of kimchi seem endless, but are there downsides?
Well, it does have some serious spicy flavor to it, which can be an issue with some folks. Also, it contains high amounts of sodium, if you’re concerned about that. I love both tart and hot foods, so kimchi is heaven to me. And personally I don’t worry about salt.
If you’re game, try it on your next salad or in soups or grain bowls.
If kimchi’s not for you, remember there are many other foods featuring healthy probiotic bacteria. You can find them in yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, tempeh, kombucha, and many more. And of course, there are always supplements.
- Food Sci Biotechnol 20, 643–649 (2011)