Fermented Friday: Keep Calm and Ferment On—How Sauerkraut Might Reduce Anxiety


If anxiety over trying something new is keeping you from experiencing the health benefits of fermented foods, then you may be caught in one big irony. New research suggests that one of the many benefits of fermented foods is alleviating some types of anxiety.

Eating for our brains is nothing new. Omega 3's are touted for improving memory and cognitive performance, and even have behavioral benefits. On the negative side, a high junk food diet has been shown to limit neural plasticity and learning ability in a matter of weeks. Back on the positive: a clean and healthy diet is suggested for warding off symptoms of alzheimer's disease.

It just makes sense. Our brain is not in a vacuum (though our minds might be) and what we eat will eventually make its way upstairs. The health and wellness community is beginning to take this understanding even further by looking past the nutrients that food provides and looking into how the microbes in our food—particularly probiotics, the “good bacteria”— are affecting our cognitive and mental health. Check out our recent post to get caught up.

Probiotics are abundant in fermented foods. Strains of lactobacillus, which produce lactic acid, are perhaps the most well studied and widely used. For instance, to make yogurt you simply add some lactobacillus to milk. It’s a little more complicated than that, but not by much—in fermentation, you let the microbes do all of the work.

It turns out that those bacteria might be doing even more work than we thought. Allison Aubrey of NPR reports on a recent study out of Leiden University in The Netherlands in which subjects who took a probiotic exhibited a higher degree of positive change in their symptoms of sadness than their experimental-control counterparts who were given a placebo. Aubrey recounts a conversation with one of the researchers:

What was different is that they reported less aggressive thoughts and less ruminative thoughts," Steenbergen told us by phone.

So, bottom line, they were a little more chill? "Yes, it means they were less reactive to negative thoughts and feelings."

Even a small study like this does create an intriguing line of inquiry for psychologists and microbiologists to pursue.  

Over-the-counter probiotic supplements are one thing, but arguably, one could get a similar probiotic effect by fermenting food. Aubrey’s account echoes a similarly designed study out of The College of William and Mary that used fermented foods. Around 700 students in this fall’s Intro to Psych classes were given questionnaires about anxiety before and after 30 days of eating increased amounts of fermented foods. The researchers were able to correlate consumption of more fermented foods to decreased social anxiety, particularly in students who had a higher degrees of anxiety to start. Erin Zagursky reports that though they are far from proving a causal relationship (similar to the above study, experimental trials are needed to start showing causality) the researchers, including Professors Matthew Hilimire, were surprised and encouraged by the results. Zagursky also points out that the fermented foods may contain different properties than over-the-counter probiotics due to the complex nature of their nutrients.

Researchers will soon create an experimental version of the study, looking specifically at social anxiety and using fermented foods as opposed to probiotic supplements, which lack the bioactive proteins that can also affect the brain.

If we use a naturally fermented food – we give people yogurt instead of isolated probiotics – it will be among the first experimental studies that use these fermented foods, so they’ll get the benefits of the probiotics but also the peptides, as well,” said Hilimire.

The article also mentions that treating anxiety with fermented foods would have fewer side effects than other pharmaceuticals used to treat anxiety. It would probably be less expensive, too. Of course, we are not trying to diminish the importance of anti-anxiety drugs, or claim that people may not need them. It is interesting, though, to think about how what we eat affects our lives and ways in which changing our eating habits might have more benefits than we might initially think.

There is a long way to go before psychiatrists start prescribing beet kvass, and more than likely, that won’t ever happen.

Interested in sharing your own social science experiment with fermentation? Send us your #FermentedFriday tweets, and FB messages.

Image via Flickr
Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson

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