Do you ever feel nervous, anxious or awkward in social situations?

A fascinating new human study suggests that perhaps you should get pickled.

We don't mean that you should guzzle booze to feel more relaxed in social situations.

Instead, it's looking like fermented foods – such as pickles, sauerkraut and yogurt – may help ease social anxiety.

Fermented foods are natural source of probiotics … healthy bacteria that live in your gut and help to protect your overall health.

The results of two new studies indicate that diets rich in fermented foods raise gut levels of healthy bacteria, and thereby lift moods and alleviate social anxiety.
Probiotics: A refresher
Probiotic bacteria are considered beneficial because they aid digestion, keep bad bacteria in check, and boost your immune system.

Based on preliminary research, probiotics appear to offer a number of possible health benefits:
  • Treat diarrhea
  • Lower cholesterol
  • Produce nutrients
  • Boost immune response
  • Alleviate seasonal allergies
  • Improve gastrointestinal health
  • Soothe irritable bowel syndrome and stomach ulcers
Antibiotics and junky diets (ones high in processed foods and low in whole, plant foods) can cut the number of beneficial bacteria living in your gut.

In contrast, diets rich in fermented foods and their probiotic cultures appear to provide substantial physical health benefits … and possible psychological benefits.

Anxious or sad? Check your gut
As we all know from experience, there are links between diet and mood: see Food for Your Mood: How to Eat for a Lift.

A new branch of study is looking into the connection between the gut microbes and the mind.

A recent animal study produced encouraging results: see Live Cultures May Lift Mood.

We'll get to the results of an intriguing new study linking fermented foods to reduce social anxiety.

But first, let's look at the results of a recent clinical trial, which found that "probiotic" supplements may boost people's moods.

You'll find a quick overview of that term – which refers to beneficial bacteria like those found in fermented foods – in the sidebar at right: "Probiotics: A refresher".

Clinical trial links probiotic supplements to healthier moods
Earlier this year, Dutch researchers tested the effects of probiotic supplements on "rumination” (Steenbergen L et al. 2015).

Rumination is the tendency to focus on negative life events, and fixate on their possible negative consequences ... a proven marker for increased vulnerability to depression.

In their four-week trial, the Dutch scientists tested whether a probiotic supplement would reduce rumination in 20 non-depressed participants.

The trial participants received either a daily probiotic supplement (containing a number of different beneficial bacteria), or placebo capsules.

At the end of the trial, the participants who took supplemental probiotics showed significantly less rumination, and reported fewer negative thoughts.

And the results of another human study lend further evidence for the idea that diets rich in fermented foods bring psychological benefits.

Maryland study suggests that fermented foods may ease anxiety
The study on social anxiety was conducted by Matthew Hilimire and Catherine Forestell from Maryland's William & Mary College, and Jordan DeVylder at the University of Maryland (Hilimire MR et al. 2015).

Theirs was the first human study to explore the possible relationship between probiotic intake from foods (as opposed to supplements) and anxiety.

The researchers recruited 710 young adults (265 men and 445 women), who reported how much fermented food they typically ate, and took standard tests designed to gauge their levels of "neuroticism” and social anxiety.

Neuroticism is a personality type characterized by anxiety, fear, moodiness, worry, envy, frustration, jealousy, and loneliness. It's considered a fundamental, perhaps even necessary, factor in susceptibility to mood and anxiety disorders (Griffith JW et al. 2010; Ormel J et al. 2013).

The researchers compared the participants' self-reported intakes of fermented foods with their apparent levels of social anxiety.

And the results were extremely encouraging.

Specifically, the scores on tests for social anxiety were lower among the participants who reported eating more fermented foods … especially among the participants who displayed neuroticism on the psychological tests.

(Interestingly, the participants who reported exercising more frequently were also less likely to show signs of social anxiety in the psychological tests.)

As the authors wrote, "Taken together with previous studies, the results suggest that fermented foods that contain probiotics may have a protective effect against social anxiety symptoms …”.

"It's 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 professor Hilimire.

Why would fermented foods affect mood?
Some scientists speculate that beneficial gut bacteria may boost brain levels of major, calming neurotransmitter called GABA.

GABA exerts effects opposite to those of glutamate, a major neurotransmitter that tends to "excite” brain cells.

Although there are barriers designed to keep chemicals in the blood from crossing into the brain, researchers just reported the startling discovery of previously unknown lymphatic-system conduits between the gut and the brain.

That discovery suggests the possibility that beneficial microbes may produce calming or mood-elevating chemicals that can pass into the brain via lymphatic conduits.

We can only hope that future research confirms that diets rich in fermented foods can help ease social anxiety … without drugs or other medical interventions.

Adding fermented foods to your menu
These are some popular fermented foods you can easily add to your menu.

Aside from any possible health boost, they add wonderful, unique flavors and textures to meals.

Fermented dairy foods
  • Kefir
  • Yogurt
Fermented vegetables
  • Sauerkraut
  • Pickled cucumbers, beets, carrots, and more
  • Korean kimchi
Fermented soy foods
  • Miso
  • Tempeh
  • Fermented tofu
One of the more recently popular fermented foods is an ancient central Asian tea called kombucha.

If none of these appeal to you – or you just want some probiotic "insurance” – take probiotic supplements.

Experts suggest that you choose a supplement that contains a variety of different bacterial strains.

Putting possible psychological benefits aside, fermented foods enliven our menus and provide a wide range of health benefits ... so get pickled!

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  • Hakulinen C, Elovainio M, Pulkki-Råback L, Virtanen M, Kivimäki M, Jokela M. Personality and depressive symptoms: Individual participant meta-analysis of 10 cohort studies. Depress Anxiety. 2015 Jul;32(7):461-70. doi: 10.1002/da.22376. Epub 2015 May 26.
  • Hilimire MR, DeVylder JE, Forestell CA. Fermented foods, neuroticism, and social anxiety: An interaction model. Psychiatry Res. 2015 Aug 15;228(2):203-8. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2015.04.023. Epub 2015 Apr 28.
  • Ormel J, Jeronimus BF, Kotov R, Riese H, Bos EH, Hankin B, Rosmalen JG, Oldehinkel AJ. Neuroticism and common mental disorders: meaning and utility of a complex relationship. Clin Psychol Rev. 2013 Jul;33(5):686-97. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2013.04.003. Epub 2013 Apr 29. Review.
  • Steenbergen L, Sellaro R, van Hemert S, Bosch JA, Colzato LS. A randomized controlled trial to test the effect of multispecies probiotics on cognitive reactivity to sad mood. Brain Behav Immun. 2015 Apr 7. pii: S0889-1591(15)00088-4. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2015.04.003.
  • Zhou L, Foster JA. Psychobiotics and the gut-brain axis: in the pursuit of happiness. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2015 Mar 16;11:715-23. doi: 10.2147/NDT.S61997. eCollection 2015. Review.