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Can Fermented Foods Help Lower Anxiety?

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It’s not all in your head—the key to wrestling your worries may actually be in your gut. People who ate more fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, and kefir were less likely to experience social anxiety, reports a new study in Psychiatry Research.

How does the lip-puckering flavor put you at ease? Thanks to their probiotic power, fermented foods boost the population of beneficial bacteria in your gut. It’s this favorable change to your gut that in turn influences social anxiety, explained study author Matthew Hilimire, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the College of William and Mary. Scientists have long known your microbe makeup has a profound effect on your health (which is why your gut is often referred to as your second brain), although they're still trying to determine exactly how. (Learn more in Is This the Secret to Health and Happiness?

Hilimire’s research team, though, has considered past research on animals for their hypothesis. Looking at probiotics and mood disorders in animals, studies have shown that beneficial microorganisms decrease inflammation and increase GABA, the neurotransmitter that anti-anxiety medications aim to mimic.

“Giving animals these probiotics increased GABA, so it’s almost like giving them these drugs but it’s their own bodies producing GABA,” he said. “So your own body is increasing this neurotransmitter that reduces anxiety.”

In the new study, Hilimire and his team asked students personality questions as well as about their eating and exercise habits. They found that those who ate the most yogurt, kefir, fermented soy milk, miso soup, sauerkraut, pickles, tempeh, and kimchi also had lower levels of social anxiety. Fermented food worked best to help people who also rated as highly neurotic, which, interestingly, Hilimire thinks is a trait that may share a genetic root with social anxiety.

While they still need to do more experiments, their hope is that these foods can help supplement medications and therapy. And since fermented foods are packed with healthy nutrients (find out Why You Should Add Fermented Foods to Your Diet), that’s comfort food we can get on board with.

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