Fermented Food and your Liver

man in black shirt sitting beside brown wooden table
Fermented foods including Sauerkraut - Photo by Micah Tindell

Fermented foods really help your Liver and Gallbladder work better. From a 5 Element point of view, they are classified as ‘sour’. [Sour foods assist the Wood element. How? They stimulate the digestion just as sucking a lemon makes your mouth water.] Fermenting a food makes it last longer and also makes it easier to digest. Also, it enhances the good bugs in your digestive tract, the ones that help you ward off disease.

Fermented foods have been eaten for thousands of years. They occur naturally. In fact, you can’t stop foods fermenting in the right conditions.

Many alcoholic spirits, including whisky, arrive after soaking and then heating a cereal grain (barley, for whisky) to convert the starches into sugars which are then fermented into alcohol. Something similar goes for beer, wine and just about any alcoholic drink. With whisky they distil the alcoholic mixture, which concentrates the volatile compounds and from storage in oak barrels and over time (can be many years) goes to produce the wonderful taste with which Scotland aims to rule the world.

Mind you, you have to be careful, as anyone can make mouldy food! But if you know how, many foods can be encouraged to ferment. Just as Spring renews life, fermentation is a form of growth. Chinese nutritional theory believes that this growth ‘factor’ strongly assists the actions of your Liver and Gallbladder.

Below is some advice on how to do it, but here are some of the foods that different cultures have learned to ferment. Many cultures have specialised in or become well known for a particular ferment but really, they are available to us all.

Making them takes only a small effort and the rewards are great!

(By the way, fermented foods are not the only ones that benefit your Liver. Read also Blood-Building foods and our page on Nutrition. That Nutrition page also includes books you might like to read for further information.)

Fermented Food is Cooling

Caution! Fermenting makes food more ‘cooling’ in your body. That’s not good if you are a chilly person –  one who always feels cold. But even people with good circulation should not over-eat fermented foods.

Read more under Cold Foods.

You may like our page on How to Warm Up if You’re Always Cold.

Fermented vegetables

Pickling vegetables means different things in different cultures.

In the West, it often means taking the ripe, clean vegetable and preserving it in vinegar or sometimes salt (traditionally they used ‘brine’, which is sea water.).

But prepared as I describe below, the chemical process that derives from the natural enzymes present in the air (these enzymes are very difficult to wash off, which is fortunate as they do the fermenting work!) – over time start a process which ends with a naturally slightly sour food. No need to add vinegar!

Thus cabbage is turned into sauerkraut, for example. The Koreans make kimchi from cabbage and radish with onions, garlic and ginger and other ingredients from local culture. It’s quite spicy, but that’s how they like it.

Fermented soybeans

Soya beans are a source of protein. In their natural form they are not often eaten ‘as is’ in Eastern culture.

In the West you can buy soya milk (made from ground soya beans and water) but this has not been prepared the Eastern way which is to put the soya through a fermentation process which makes it easier to digest and more beneficial.

Soya beans when fermented produce something that your digestion really likes and which encourages it to produce more of the digestive micro-flora that keep you well.

Typical soybean-like ferments include miso and tamari, shoyu and natto although some of these are based on grains.

What about the Salt Content?

When you buy these in commercially produced form, you’ll notice they are high in salt.

But normally you would take them in small quantities so the salt content is not that important. And anyway, salt is an important ingredient in food – just not in the huge quantities which many Westerners like. Other, unsalted foods in a meal would dilute the salt from the miso.

If you heap miso onto your toast, like marmite, then yes, you could be taking too much salt.

Fermented Dairy foods

Many cultures have produced ferments from milk. It makes the milk more digestible and helps it last longer without degrading.

Most Westerners are familiar with yogurt, although many products sold as yogurt don’t appear to include fermented milk! You need to inspect the contents to see if they include ferment cultures.

In some cases they just add them to the milk, so don’t enzymatically produce them by fermenting it!

Also, if after fermenting it they’ve pasteurised the milk to 70C, then probably little of the ferment benefits will remain. So look for unpasteurised products that contain the enzymes you need. Kefir, yogurt, buttermilk, lassi are examples.

clear glass cup with white liquid
Kefir – Photo by Alison Marras

Cheese is also made from milk and involves some fermentation.

As mentioned, fermenting tends to make foods ‘colder’. That’s why lassi is often given to balance the hot herbs in Indian cuisine, and yogurt with cucumber to cool.

But too much cold food depletes your Stomach Yang reserves.

So from the point of hot and cold, few meals should include lots of yogurt, let alone a meal of yogurt on its own: Chinese medicine would consider this a very unbalanced dish – far too cold.

Fermented drinks

Because fermenting tends to make drinks more cooling, they are refreshing. But take care not to drink too much! (To understand why, read our page on the effect of too much cold food.)

Of course, if alcohol is produced, by the time you drink it, not much of the ferment remains in spirits like whisky, so the effect is warming. But in many craft beers you can definitely taste the ferment, making beers usually cooling in effect. And, you tend to drink them cold, even chilled, which makes them even more cooling. Not good if you are naturally a chilly person!

If you suffer from hypertension (high blood pressure), as alcohol tends to be warming, enhancing yang, alcohol is not a good idea for you, though a little – a very little! – may help you relax.

Better would be to take fermented drinks like kombucha. These are non-alcoholic and tend to be cooling, enhancing Yin. That extra Yin helps to counteract the excess Yang producing your hypertension. So non-alcoholic fermented drinks may help to reduce your hypertension. But not too much, otherwise it dissipates your Stomach Yang energy, weakening your digestion and making you worry, which increases yang again and pushes up your blood pressure!

Other non-alcoholic fermented drinks include apple cider vinegar, rice wine and ordinary vinegar, though there’s not usually much ferment in shop-bought vinegar.

Sourdough bread

sourdough bread on brown wooden table

Depending on the grain you use, this may or may not include gluten. Many people are sensitive to gluten.

During the bread-making, the baker uses enzymes that are natural in the air, or which he introduces from cultures he has bought to provide the ferment. This helps to make the grain more digestible so if you think you are sensitive to gluten, try a variety of sourdough breads to see which help you digest better.

Although those enzymes ferment the bread, giving it a slightly sour taste, the oven temperature used to bake it kills off many of the ferment products so you don’t get much when eating it.

But you will get some unless the bread is hugely over-cooked. Those ferments enhance your micro-biome, the immune system in your gut.

How to Make (Ferment) vegetables into Kimchi

Kimchi is a favourite in some Eastern cultures, especially Korea and Japan. It’s a form of fermented cabbage, to which local cuisine adds various warming herbs. These help balance the otherwise ‘cooling’ effect of the fermented cabbage.

With Kimchi, the main microbes are lactic acid bacteria which can abide salty, acid and low-oxygen conditions which few other bacteria can survive. Those that do survive eventually dominate, and in Kimchi the main one is lactobacillus plantarum

Where does lactobacillus plantarum come from? Nobody is quite sure – though one idea is that it arrives in the stomach of insects who alight on the vegetables!

What we can be sure of is that every vegetable will be slightly different because every garden and every kitchen is different! So your kimchi will be different too.

Ingredients and Utensils needed

  • A large jar. not plastic, with a lid you can loosen and tighten.
  • A large bowl, not plastic
  • A saucepan lid
  • Cabbage: any type
  • Salt, finely ground
  • Also, a spring onion, garlic, ginger and even chilli depending on how you like it: all chopped small. Without these, you are basically making sauerkraut.


How to make Kimchi

Many people say that meditating for a while before embarking on this helps concentration, lowers tension and leads to more tranquillity.

Also, that it enhances a deeper sense of being and the inter-connectedness of life.

multiple dishes field bowls on table, including fermented kimchi

The same could be said for when you test the taste and eat it.

  1. Chop up the cabbage into small pieces, roughly all the same size. The smaller you make them, the better.
  2. Put the chopped cabbage in the large bowl.
  3. Add a teaspoon of the salt for each 400gms of cabbage.
  4. Add the other ingredients, eg chopped spring onion, ginger etc.
  5. Mix well with the cabbage/salt mixture. Do not add water!
  6. Leave for 30 minutes, then using the saucepan lid press and squeeze the mixture until water leaches out.
  7. Put this mixture into the jar, packing it in firmly.
  8. If you’ve made the mixture correctly, there should be enough water still there to keep all the cabbage etc submerged when you press it down. If not, add a little water and press the contents down so they are all under water.
  9. Leave 10 cm clear space at the top of the jar and tighten the lid.
  10. Every two or three days loosen the lid to let out carbon dioxide which builds up during fermentation.
  11. Leave the jar in a cool place. Traditionally they buried the jar in the earth, but a cool outhouse will do, or in the coolest corner of a room away from the sun .
  12. Let it ferment for a week or so.


What Next?

Do think about the deeper meanings behind what you doing. Take your time!

How you are reinforcing wonderful cultural traditions, carrying forward these ancient healthy ways of life for your children and grandchildren.

How, but for you teaching them, they might never learn to appreciate these rich ways of well-being, of transforming the bustle of life into the slower lane.

  1. Cautiously, using a clean spoon which you’ve previously sterilised by immersing it in boiling water for a few seconds then allowed to cool, take out a small amount and taste it!
  2. If it tastes good, put the jar in the fridge to slow the fermentation process.
  3. If you prefer it a bit stronger (ie more sour), leave it to ferment for  longer. Up to a month – but check carefully that gas is still escaping because when it produces no more gas, fermentation stops. After that it could go bad unless kept chilled!
  4. In the fridge it will keep for months, growing gradually more sour.
  5. Using spoons – cleaned as above, remove what you want from the jar, put it on a plate and eat it!
  6. Note: if before eating it you then cook the kimchi (or sauerkraut) the heating will kill the good bugs and you’ll end up with just rather sour hot cabbage. Some people like it! But cooking it does rather miss the point, which was to get the good bugs into you!


After eating? Reflect on the wonderful ‘magic’ you’ve made to enhance your health.

As after all meals, it is best to rest awhile or take a slow walk, to allow your digestion to make the most of your creation and for your mind to dwell on Nature’s infinite bounty.


What do I do?

Well, since I can’t be bothered with all this, I buy it from the shop, keep it in the fridge and take some every day.

Jonathan Brand colours

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