Brain health, the immune system, mental health, and digestion may seem like totally different aspects of well-being, but they all seem to come back to one thing: the microbiome. (Gut health, so hot right now.) Since evidence is mounting that your overall health likely depends on how happy your gut is, it’s mega important to keep the good bacteria thriving—and the bad guys kept to a minimum.
Eating fermented foods on the reg is one of the easiest ways to fuel your good gut bacteria. Pickles, kombucha, yogurt, and miso are all examples of foods that are fermented—which means the ingredients have been left to sit and steep until their sugars and carbs become bacteria-boosting agents—but one food you should be adding into your rotation? Kimchi.
The traditional Korean dish, usually served as a condiment or a side, is made from fermented cabbage. At face value, it sounds very similar to sauerkraut (which is also made with fermented cabbage). But there are some key differences that make it stand apart. Kimchi is fermented at a lower temperature than sauerkraut, and for a shorter period of time. It also uses other vegetables like radishes and scallions along with cabbage, and is seasoned with fish sauce, chili pepper, and garlic. (Compare that to your standard sauerkraut, which is generally just cabbage, salt, and caraway seeds.)
Besides bringing enough heat to tickle your tastebuds, kimchi is great for your gut (and all of your de-bloating needs) thanks to its probiotic properties. But the benefits don’t stop there. Keep reading for a complete run-down of kimchi health benefits.
Scroll down to see the health benefits of kimchi.
1. It’s good for your heart. Eating kimchi regularly has been found to lower serum lipid levels—aka your blood cholesterol levels. Study participants who ate the most amount of kimchi (210 grams per day!) saw a significant reduction in their LDL cholesterol levels as well as in their blood glucose levels, although even people who ate 15 grams of kimchi per day saw some effects.
2. It boosts your immune system. Kimchi has been linked with giving the immune system a boost—and not just because it’s making your gut happy (although that does play a part). Scientists have found that it’s also a major antioxidant booster, which in turn keeps the body in top form and can help fight disease. Definitely worth adding to your sick day survival kit.
3. Kimchi may reduce inflammation. Here’s a way that kimchi helps your whole body from head to toe: reducing inflammation. A study found that an acid in kimchi, HDMPPA (which is basically like its active ingredient), reduced inflammation in mice. More research needs to be done, but def promising stuff!
4. It’s linked to improving memory. Sure, fatty fish and nuts do plenty to boost cognitive function, but it turns out that kimchi could be brain food, too. In one study performed on mice, scientists found that consuming kimchi was linked to improved memory and skill-learning, and researchers said it had potential to lessen the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Again, it’s a mouse study so more research is needed, but still—pretty cool!
5. It’s antibacterial. Not only is kimchi itself antibacterial (basically, the gut-boosting bad bacteria in kimchi can fight off the bad stuff!), but so are some of the other ingredients it’s commonly made with, like garlic and chili peppers.
Possible side effects of kimchi
Even with all these amazing benefits, there are a few not-so great issues to be aware of. Even though kimchi has been shown to have tons of health benefits, high intakes of it has been linked to gastric cancer (possibly due to its sodium content, researchers suggest). It’s important to note that this is a correlation, not a proven cause-and-effect case, but is something to be aware of.
Also, because kimchi is often made with garlic and hot chili peppers, it might not be the best fermented food choice for people who don’t tolerate hot spices well. If you fall into this group, go for sauerkraut instead, which has many of the same benefits but doesn’t have the same heat that kimchi brings.
How to work kimchi into your diet
Ready to try making the gut-healthy fermented food at home? It actually isn’t all that tricky. “It’s one of those things, like making beer or bread, that maybe isn’t that hard but there are a lot of steps you can screw up. You really have to pay attention to what you’re doing,” says Judy Joo, the executive chef at London’s Jinjuu, host of the Cooking Channel’s Korean Food Made Simple. Here’s how she says to do it:
- To prepare the kimchi, cut your cabbage lengthways into quarters. Put it into a very large bowl and sprinkle with salt and sugar. Pour in water and weigh the cabbage down with a plate to keep it submerged. Refrigerate overnight.
- To prepare the spice paste, combine garlic, ginger, fish sauce, chili flakes, shrimp, and sugar in food processor and blend until smooth, adding water as necessary to make a loose paste, about one minute. Stir in the scallions and carrots.
- Remove the cabbage from the fridge and drain it well, squeezing out as much water as possible. Rinse it with cold running water once and drain it again.
- Rub spice paste over the cabbage and in between each leaf. Place it in a large glass jar with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate it for 24 hours. Then, while still covered, let sit at room temperature to ferment for at least 24 hours and up to two weeks. Then put it back in the refrigerator to enjoy. It will keep for one month.
Below are three delish kimchi recipes, including one from Joo, to start with that will make your body happy on so many levels.
If you’ve never made kimchi before, this is a great basic recipe to start with. Joo’s recipe calls for cabbage, salt, sugar, water, garlic, ginger, fish sauce, carrots, and scallions. She also likes adding shrimp to up the protein and round it out as a full meal.
Another way to get your kimchi fix is to add it to a piping hot bowl of bibimbap, a traditional Korean rice dish topped with egg and lots of veggies. Virtually any mix of veggie works in the recipe, so it’s a great way to use up the produce you have in the fridge before it goes bad.
Okay, now this is downright genius: Well+Good Wellness Council member and clinical nutritionist McKel Hill, MS, RDN incorporates kimchi right into a dip—her gut-healthy take on creamy onion dip. She whips it up by adding the kimchi along with cashews, hemp seeds, and a few key spices to her food processor until the blend nice and smooth. So smart, right?