It turns out that eating fermented foods such as sauerkraut, pickles, and yogurt may help ease certain types of anxiety. Also, they might decrease general neuroticism. Nutritionists realized this after scientists and other mental health experts discovered that the stomach may influence mental health.
In one study of 700 students at the College of William and Mary, those that ate higher levels of fermented foods had fewer social anxiety symptoms. One professor explained it this way:
“It is likely that the probiotics in the fermented foods are favorable changing the environment in the guy, and changes in the gut, in turn, influence social anxiety.”
Pickles and the Gut-Brain Connection
The biological connection between the gut and brain has been known for a while. In relation to anxiety, scientists believe that good bacteria in fermented foods increase levels of a chemical called GABA. GABA is a neurotransmitter that has an anti-anxiety effect on the body. In other words, good bacteria that accumulate in the gut by eating fermented food may have a direct anti-anxiety, sedative effect.
It is worth noting that the gut’s ecosystem varies from person to person, so it is difficult to predict the necessary amount of pickles or other fermented food to achieve a sedative effect. On the same token, it is difficult to predict the degree of “anti-anxiety” effects by eating such foods.
While human studies linking fermentation and the brain are few in number, scientists have studied such an effect on animals. Previous studies have discovered a link between probiotics and depression or anxiety. In such studies, manipulation of fermented food intake had a direct impact on both personality and social anxiety.
According to Dr. Matthew Hilimire, a professor of Psychology at William and Mary, say this:
“Giving these animals these probiotics increased GABA, so it’s almost like giving them these drugs but it’s their own bodies producing GABA. So your own body is increasing this neurotransmitter that reduces anxiety.”
Scientists at the University also note the link between GABA levels in the brain and decreased inflammation of the gut. On this end, scientists discovered the lessening of adverse gut reactions – including gut leak and inflammation – and the consumption of fermented foods.
These results suggest that consumption of fermented foods that contain probiotics may serve as a low-risk intervention for reducing social anxiety. – US National Library of Medicine
Findings of the Study
The study’s researchers explain this gut/brain connection further:
“The fermented foods so often included in traditional dietary practices have the potential to influence brain health by virtue of the microbial action that has been applied to the food or beverage, and by the ways in which the fermented food or beverage directly influences our own microbiota…this could manifest behaviorally…”
Fascinatingly, the number of neurons in our gut is roughly the same number of neurons located in our spinal cord. There is actually a term for this neuronal arrangement in the gut, the enteric nervous system. Experts also call this our “second brain.”
Because of these neuronal firings, our gut is capable of reacting without communicating with our brain. In fact, some believe that cravings for certain foods may not come from the brain at all. Instead, they argue, they come from the gut.
Our microbiome, the community of bacteria that resides in our gut, changes according to our age, genetic code, stress levels, and where we live. Furthermore, this microbiome is capable of communicating with our Central Nervous System (CNS) and influencing our behavioral traits.