Donna Schwenk on Health Benefits of Fermented Foods

Donna Schwenk on Health Benefits of Fermented Foods

Home-made fermented beet juice (a.k.a. beet kvass). It's my favorite!

Home-made fermented beet juice (a.k.a. beet kvass). It's my favorite!

At a glance

Donna Schwenk, author of Cultured Food for Health, shared the power of cultivating live cultures inside our gut by consuming kefir, kombucha, and fermented vegetables.

What you’ll learn

  • How consuming raw fermented foods can help with health problems like seasonal allergies, hormonal imbalance, fatigue, and more
  • Why consuming fermented foods is more powerful than taking probiotic supplements
  • How to eat these healing raw foods properly

Let's Begin.

At the time of this interview, I was doing research for my book project on vegetable fermentation and looking for more information on the health benefits of consuming fermented foods. I met Donna Schwenk at the Boston Fermentation Festival hosted by Boston Ferments. She was about release her book Cultured Food for Health. It was just the right timing and I was so grateful that she agreed to spend some time with me on discussing more on this topic. The interview was very informational and eye-opening. It has opened another door to opportunities to improve our health. 

Below you’ll find what we discussed in detail. Note that information shared by Donna may not reflect the exact words she used. But it conveys the same meaning.

Can consuming fermented foods heal seasonal allergies?

I had seasonal allergies for 30 to 40 years and went from three months of suffering to one week after I started eating fermented foods. At the base of every kind of allergy, it is about the adrenal stress. And there is a massive amount of vitamin C in fermented vegetables which supports the adrenal. For example, regular cabbage contains 70 milligrams of vitamin C, whereas fermented cabbage has 10 times as much. This will help the immune response get less severe. Meanwhile, there are abundant B vitamins from kefir and kombucha, which also strengthens the adrenal and reduces inflammation. In other words, the friendly bacteria talks to your immune system.

Do you see that a lot of the intolerance and allergies (including food allergies) these days have something to do with our gut?

It is proven that intolerance and allergies are connected to the internal microbiota. According to a study published in the summer of 2015, for people who were given antibiotics especially during infancy and childhood, they killed bacteria in their gut which caused food allergy later on. When those missing strains of bacteria were put back to the gut, the allergy went away. Generations after generations, there is more and more use of antibiotics. People’s awareness to cultivate friendly bacteria is still not very strong. That’s why children these days don’t have as diverse gut flora as we used to. Each generation is getting worse, because the moms don’t have them anymore.

Does consuming fermented foods help heal Small Intestine Bacteria Overgrowth (SIBO)?

It can help. SIBO is a sign that the body is out of balance. And eating fermented foods is one way to help the body get back to the balance.

Can cultivating live cultures inside the body help balance hormones?

Yes, very much so! Consuming fermented foods regulates women hormones. It can help women with menopause balance out the hormones. As an example, kombucha, kefir, and fermented vegetables can remove the extra estrogen and hot flashes. Bacteria are doing everything.

Eating fermented foods helps the mom-to-be set a healthy foundation for her baby’s life.

How safe are they for kids and pregnant women?

The more good bacteria the mom has, the more she is going to give it to her baby, which is going to set the foundation for the baby’s life. Children seem to get better faster by absorbing microbes more efficiently.

Some people have histamine intolerance and may not be able to tolerate fermented vegetables. What is your opinion on that?

Histamine intolerance is a sign of adrenal stress and lacking good gut flora. It is recommended that those with histamine intolerance start fixing their gut first with probiotic supplements. Consuming these supplements may not cause as strong alert reactions as you would experience when you take fermented foods, if you are allergic to histamine. Juicing can be a great way to fix histamine intolerance. After the health of the gut is improved, they may be able to add fermented foods into their diet.

Would you recommend people taking probiotic supplements or would you prefer cultivating good microbes by eating fermented foods?

I don’t recommend people take supplements because fermented foods are so much more powerful and beneficial and the body just handles them better.  One tablespoon of fermented vegetables has as much healthy bacteria as the ones in the whole bottle of probiotic supplements. Stomach acid might kill some of the probiotics you take. Food has a natural transport system inside the body that allows them to get to the places where they need to go. However, if you have the problem that you cannot handle them, then I’d suggest you take supplements.

Cultivating friendly microbes can not only heal allergies and balance hormones, but also give you more energy.

How about fighting fatigue?

Yes, consuming fermented foods helps. It can also be a sign of adrenal stress. Illness and diseases teach you that your body is your home and will give you signals and warning signs that call for help.

How would you recommend us eat fermented foods properly?

It is important to also eat prebiotics – foods rich in dietary fiber such as fruits and vegetables. They will help the strains of bacteria grow. Bacteria work in groups. The more you grow them, the more powerfully they will work together as a team. If you don’t have enough, they might not do their job as well.

It is important to start with small amounts. At the beginning, you may experience some die-off reactions (minor sickness like itchiness which can go away in a few days). That’s why you should go slowly with only a few spoonfuls of fermented vegetables, half-a-cup of kefir (a form of fermented milk), or three to four ounces of kombucha. After you get used to these foods, each day you may enjoy a cup of kefir, quarter-of-a-cup to half-a-cup of fermented vegetables, or eight to 16 ounces of kombucha.

My thoughts

My conversations with Donna and personal research amazed me on how important microbes are in sustaining our life. When talking about how to become healthier, we tend to think about how to improve our body. Now we’ve got one more perspective – how to be kind to and cultivate the friendly microbes within us so that our body and allies (a.k.a. these beneficial bacteria) can thrive together.

Next, treat illnesses with gratitude. They are signals communicated by our body that something wrong is going on inside. It is an opportunity for us to respond to its request and improve our health. You can’t fix the problem until you see it. The more you want to achieve in life, the more your need to pay attention to your health. Think about car maintenance. You’ll have to proactively fix what’s not working in your car to make sure everything is functioning smoothly, so that it can take you far out to your ultimate destination.

Finally, eat fermented foods in moderation. As you see from Donna’s recommendations, you only take a small amount even after you get used to consuming those foods with live cultures. I need to point this out because, during my survey for my book project and from my own experience, consuming too much can cause sickness and discomfort in the gut. You should keep this in mind when you eat these foods.

About Donna

Having been making and eating cultured food since 2002, Donna Schwenk is the author of the best-selling Cultured Food for Life and Cultured Food for Health. She is the Kansas City Chapter leader for Weston Price Foundation, a worldwide organization comprised of people dedicated to restoring nutrient-dense food to the human diet through education, research, and activism.

You can find her via the following channels:


  • Cultivating healthy bacteria in the gut can help fight fatigue and heal seasonal allergies, food allergies, Small Intestine Bacteria Overgrowth, and hormonal imbalance. Live cultures are especially important for children at a young age and pregnant women.
  • If you have histamine intolerance, you will have to fix your gut first with probiotic supplements before trying fermented foods. Juicing can help improve the gut functions.
  • Eating fermented foods can give the body more benefits than taking probiotics supplements.
  • Consume fermented foods of all kinds with moderation.

My questions to you

Which part of the post is most relevant to you? If you decide to try some fermented goodies, what would you start with: kombuha, kefir, or fermented vegetables?  


Keep an open mind and have fun in the process!

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Want to learn more about how eating fermented vegetables can bring you more health, energy, and happiness? Check out my new book.

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