Eat Kimchi And Be Calm? Science Says Fermented Foods Might Curb Anxiety

Last Update: September 28, 2022

A job interview, a speech, meeting the parents—these moments can turn even cool-as-a-cucumber extroverts into quivering piles of Jell-0.

That discomfort—feeling like you’re under a microscope, fearing the worst humiliation, criticism, or rejection—is social anxiety, and it happens to the best of us. But it there’s a cure, and it doesn’t involve popping a valium.

The trillions of bacteria in the body comprise what is known as the microbiome, making up between one and three percent of a human’s body weight. They provide vitamins and anti-inflammatory compounds, and help with digestion, since the human body doesn’t produce all the necessary enzymes for breaking down many proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. And now it’s been discovered that these bacteria, in the form of probiotics that live in fermented foods, play a role in mental health.

A recent joint study between the College of William & Mary and the University of Maryland revealed that eating fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, and pickles can reduce social anxiety. It makes perfect sense, considering anxiety can sometimes make stomachs turn. The probiotics in fermented foods can alter the environment of the gut, and in turn, sucker punch anxiety right out of your system.

While the connection between the mind and the gut has not been deeply explored in the field of psychology yet, an experiment was previously conducted on mice. Those whose guts had been stripped of microbes (including bacteria) were anxious, showing increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol and decreased levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein produced in the brain that fights off depression.

After receivng the probiotic lactic acid bacterium lactobacillus, scientists observed a drop in cortisol levels and a reduction in behavior related to anxiety and depression. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a neurotransmitter that anti-anxiety medications copy, increased naturally—no addictive meds necessary.

The W&M and University of Maryland study involved surveying 700 students about how much fermented foods they were eating over the course of 30 days. They found that those who regularly consumed foods like yogurt, kefir, soy milk, and miso soup had decreased levels of social anxiety—particularly those who were classified as having neuroticism as a personality trait. These neurotics were the most affected by fermented foods, qualifying the hypothesis that its consumption, rather than other factors such as exercise had a direct effect on social anxiety at its core.

So, when you feel those nerves acting up, try a kombucha tea or kefir—it’s liquid courage your body will thank you for.

Photo credit: Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr

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Dana Poblete

Dana's love for all creatures under the sun (bugs, too) drives her in her advocacy for ethical eating, environmental sustainability, and cruelty-free living. A natural born islander, she surfs when she can, and writes, always.

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