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A Pickle A Day May Keep Your Anxiety At Bay

Fermented food appears to calm the nerves of the socially challenged

Fermented foods, like pickles, may influence social anxiety levels — though it's unclear exactly how and why. (Rebecca Siegel/Flickr)

Pickles, like many other fermented foods, can be an acquired taste. But, evidence suggests that might be a taste worth acquiring if you suffer from anxiety, as Rebecca Rupp reports for National Geographic.

A study in the August issue of Psychiatry Research finds that fermented foods— such as pickles, sauerkraut, and yogurt—eases the eater’s social anxiety and in particular their neuroticism. The culprit: Probiotics or healthy bacteria that ferments the food. “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,” Matthew Hillimire, a psychologist at the College of William and Mary and a co-author of the study, said in a statement.

Hillmire and his colleagues enlisted 710 college students at William & Mary to record how much fermented food they ate and any symptoms of neuroticism, anxiety or social phobia that they felt over the same period. The team found a link between the amount of fermented food subjects consumed and the level of social anxiety they felt. Particularly neurotic subjects saw a decrease in their symptoms of shyness and fear of social situations when they ate more fermented food.

The study may suggest a link between fermented food and anxiety, but it’s unclear if or how the sour foods might be relieving the socially challenged, but they think the microbiome may be involced. Previous studies in mice and other animals hinted that probiotics positively influence the human gut, and that healthy gut bacteria might have some implications for the mind as well. Rupp cites studies suggesting that mice without bacteria are more anxious and susceptible to stress. Clinical trials of probiotic substances had also pointed to potential mental health benefits, but those results are less clear-cut.

The good bacteria may increase levels of chemical in the brain called GABA controls anxiety. GABA sends messages to activate the same neural pathways as compounds in anti-anxiety medication. As Rupp puts it, “In other words, 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.”

It’s worth noting that the microbial ecosystem that inhabits human bodies varies from one individual to another. Figuring out the exact cause and effect relationship between fermented food and anxiety will require further study.

So, if you’re socially challenged, a pickle might not be a cure-all, but there's a chance it could help calm your fears.

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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