Pickles may help wallflowers bloom. Fermented foods, like pickles, sauerkraut and yogurt, may ease social anxiety, according to new research. Researchers at William and Mary found that the fermented foods especially helped with neuroticism.
“It is likely that the probiotics in the fermented foods are favorably changing the environment in the gut, and changes in the gut in turn influence social anxiety,” said the study’s co-author, Matthew Hillimire, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, in a university release. “I think that it is absolutely fascinating that the microorganisms in your gut can influence your mind.”
Previous studies had looked at the connection between probiotics and anxiety or depression in animal models, but this was the human study to examine the connection between food intake, personality and social anxiety, Hillimire said.
The researchers enlisted 710 college students to record how much fermented food they ate and their symptoms of neuroticism, anxiety or social phobia. They found a link between the amount of fermented food eaten and the level of social anxiety. Particularly, neurotic subjects felt a decrease in their symptoms of shyness and fear of social situations when they chowed on more fermented food.
How does it work? The researchers are not sure but suspect the good bacteria may crank a brain chemical called GABA that controls anxiety. GABA effects the same neural pathways as many anti-anxiety meds, according to a post on smithsonianmag.com about the research. As Rebecca Rupp writes in a story about the research on nationalgeographic.com, “If you’ve got a case of social jimjams, eating a bowl of sauerkraut may be the equivalent of popping a Valium. Or maybe even better.”
The research was published in the journal Psychiatry Research.
The college students who participated in the study may have been surprised by the power of kimchi and sauerkraut. Many, however, were already familiar with the liquid courage granted by a more common fermented product: beer.