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I have always loved sourdough bread, but I have a newfound love of sauerkraut, fermented mixed veggies, kimchi, and other homemade fermented experiments. The more I learn about the many health benefits of fermented foods, the more my new passion and appreciation for these tangy and satisfying foods grows. To add to the list of reasons to love fermented foods, there is now evidence that they may be foods that fight depression and anxiety, too.
What are fermented foods?
Fermented foods have been exposed to natural, beneficial bacteria called lactobacilli. The bacteria feed on the starches and sugars in the food, converting them to tangy, sour-tasting lactic acid. Kimchi, sauerkraut, and yogurt are among the more commonly known fermented foods. Others include kombucha, kefir, sourdough bread, injera (used in Ethiopian cuisine), miso, tempeh, ginger beer, dosas (from Indian cooking), and more. There are many options to choose from, so don’t be discouraged if sauerkraut doesn’t suit you; keep trying new types of fermented foods until you find a few personal favorites.
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Fermented foods offer a range of health benefits (read more about them here), from promoting digestive health to enhancing immunity. But can they really impact your mood and behavior?
The gut-brain axis
Fermented foods are a rich source of healthy bacteria, or probiotics. Probiotics have become a popular dietary supplement. But while most people associate probiotics with digestive health, these healthy bacteria can actually have far-reaching effects in the body. The bacterial composition of our gut, often called the microbiome, has become a hot topic in recent research because it is now known to be essential to the health of the entire body.
Researchers now understand that the microbiome in the gut has a direct affect on the brain, and vice-versa. The microbiome can affect our state of mind and it may play a large role in conditions like anxiety and depression. There are numerous mechanisms by which the gut microbiome and the brain communicate, including through the immune system, nerve signals, and more. Studies show that the microbiome can influence the neurotransmitter serotonin and modulate stress responses, for example.
Keeping your gut and your brain healthy
If the bacterial composition in our digestive system is so closely linked to our brains, then is it possible to alter the microbiome to treat mental conditions? Although research in the area is still in it’s infancy, it seems that the answer is yes. And how do we do that? By eating more probiotics and fermented foods.
There are numerous animal studies showing the ability of probiotic supplementation to relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression. In humans, the research is more limited, but there are studies showing probiotic consumption to be associated with improved mental health.
Taking a probiotic supplement is just one way to maintain a healthy gut microbiome. Fermented foods, which are rich, natural sources of probiotics, are also a great option. What’s more, the process of fermentation also increases the availability of B-vitamins, magnesium, and zinc, which can impact mood.
Researchers believe that fermented foods may be a great dietary option for people wishing to fight anxiety and depression. One study found that women who drank fermented milk showed altered activity in brain regions related to emotional processing compared to those who drank normal milk, reinforcing the idea that strategies to alter our microbiome can alter our mental state as well.
Scientists are continually learning about the connection between the bacteria in our gut and mental health conditions, but one thing is becoming more and more clear; a healthy gut equals a healthy brain. If you are looking for foods that fight depression and anxiety, fermented foods are a great place to start. Read about the benefits of kimchi here, learn to make easy sauerkraut here, and watch a video teaching you to make your very own sourdough bread here.
When you find a fermented food that you enjoy, add it to your daily diet. If you don’t like any fermented foods, add a probiotic supplement. Or do both. Both your digestive system and your mood will benefit.
Share your experience
Do you eat fermented foods regularly? Do you find that they help your physical and mental health? Share your thoughts on fermented foods in the comments section below.
Originally published in 2015, this post has been updated.