It's no secret that fermented foods like kimchi, pickles and sauerkraut are good for you. Filled with probiotics, fermented foods have been found to improve digestive health, and may even be useful in treating issues like high blood pressure, anxiety and eczema.
Now, a new study suggests that young adults who eat fermented foods exhibit fewer signs of social anxiety, linking mental health to the health of one's gut. The kids who are helped the most? The ones who have a genetic risk for social anxiety disorder.
Professors from the College of William and Mary and the University of Maryland School of Social Work teamed up to create a questionnaire that was given to around 700 students. They were asked about their consumption of fermented foods over the last 30 days. To measure against other healthy habits, researchers also asked about how many fruits and vegetables the students ate as well as about how often they exercised.
"This study shows that young adults who are prone towards anxiety report less social anxiety if they frequently consume fermented foods with probiotics," said psychology professor Matthew Hilimire. "These initial results highlight the possibility that social anxiety may be alleviated through low-risk nutritional interventions, although further research is needed to determine whether increasing probiotic consumption directly causes a reduction in social anxiety."
Hilimire explained, "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. I think that it is absolutely fascinating that the microorganisms in your gut can influence your mind."
Fermented foods weren't the only good medicine found in the answers in the questionnaire. The researchers also found a link between exercise and reduced social anxiety.
This study is just the first in a series of in-depth explorations of the mind-gut connection, says Hilimire.
"Assuming similar findings in the experimental follow-up, what it would suggest is that you could augment more traditional therapies (like medications, psychotherapy or a combination of the two) with fermented foods — dietary changes — and exercise, as well."
The researchers also want to do further research to see if there is a correlation between eating fermented foods and autism symptoms.
So, what kind of fermented foods should you can add to your diet? Here are three easy ones you can likely find on the shelf at your local supermarket.
Sauerkraut: This ballpark favorite, traditionally used to top hot dogs, hamburgers and reubens, is a good probiotic, contains vitamins C, helps fight ulcers, and has cancer fighting properties.
Kimchi: Even without the fermentation process, this Korean dish is good for you. Kimchi traditionally contains cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, as well as garlic, ginger and red pepper powder. Research has shown that eating kimchi has been linked to cholesterol reduction, immune system health, colorectal health, digestive assistance, and it can also help the body fight cancer and obesity.
Kombucha: This drink, which has been gaining popularity in the U.S., is fermented tea, meaning it contains probiotics. It's also a good source of B vitamins.