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Eating fermented food can give a boost to your immune system © Getty Images

Eating fermented food can give a boost to your immune system

Published: 28th May, 2019 at 00:00
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Beneficial bacteria found in food like kimchi and sauerkraut spurs the immune system into action.

It has long been known that eating fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi can offer many health benefits but exactly why this is the case has remained something of a mystery. Now, researchers at the University of Leipzig in Germany have found that the beneficial effects may be due to the bacteria found in fermented foods boosting the action of the immune system.


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The team found the effect when studying proteins found on the surface of cells in fat tissue and immune cells called hydroxycarboxylic acid (HCA) receptors. Most animals have only two types of HCA but humans and other great apes have three. When consumed, lactic acid bacteria - the kind that turns milk into yogurt and cabbage into sauerkraut – produces D-phenyllactic acid in the gut. This binds strongly to this unique third HCA receptor, spurring the immune system into action.

“We are convinced that this receptor very likely mediates some beneficial and anti-inflammatory effects of lactic acid bacteria in humans,” said Dr Claudia Stäubert. “That is why we believe it could serve as a potential drug target to treat inflammatory diseases.”

The researchers believe that the third HCA receptor may have arisen in a common ancestor of humans and great apes to enable them to consume foods that are starting to decay, such as fruits and vegetables picked up from the ground.

They now plan to study D-phenyllactic acid’s effect on the immune system further as well as investigating its effect on fat cells.


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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.


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