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Feeling Down? Eat Sauerkraut – Fermented Foods Lessen Anxiety

Sauerkraut in bowl

The best way to prevent anxiety may be to balance gut bacteria. Eating probiotic-rich fermented foods is associated with less social anxiety, according to a new study published in Psychiatry Research.

William & Mary university psychology professors Matthew Hilimire and Catherine Forestell recently joined with University of Maryland School of Social Work Assistant Professor Jordan DeVylder to investigate a possible connection between fermented foods, which contain probiotics, and social anxiety. The researchers found that young adults who eat more fermented foods have fewer social anxiety symptoms, with the effect being greatest among those at genetic risk for social anxiety disorder as measured by neuroticism.

“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,” said Hilimire. “I think that it is absolutely fascinating that the microorganisms in your gut can influence your mind.”

Dr. Gerard Mullin, author of The Gut Balance Revolution notes how  research with rats has found that a healthy microbiota early in life is critical for their HPA development. An imbalanced HPA axis can lead to an exaggerated stress response and altered neurotransmitters and brain hormones. “If this turns out to be true of humans as well, we’ll know that your microbiota have a far wider influence over your health than we originally thought,” he says.

An imbalanced HPA axis “may be one of the reasons why mood disorders such as depression and anxiety and even autism have been tied to [microbial imbalance] and why administering probiotics helps improve these conditions,” he says.

In addition to eating probiotic foods—like kefir, sauerkraut, fermented miso, and kimchi—Dr. Mullin recommends eating non-digestible carbs (aka fiber) to support good gut bacteria. His picks are bananas, onions, Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, and leeks.

“This class of fiber is so important because your gut bugs love to eat these fiber-rich and fermentable carbs, and when they get them, they send out ‘happy’ messages encouraging your body to produce these chemicals in the right amounts,” he says.

In 2011, research by Professor Mark Lyte from Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, proposed that through a unifying process of microbial endocrinology, neurochemical-producing probiotics could act as a delivery mechanism for neuroactive compounds that could improve a host’s gastrointestinal and psychological health.

Writing in a commentary piece in the same issue of BioEssays Dr Gregor Reid, from the University of Western Ontario, outlined some of the potential clinical implications of this research.

“Until recently the idea that probiotic bacteria administered to the intestine could influence the brain seemed almost surreal,” said Reid, “Yet in Lyte’s paper the concept is supported by studies showing that microbes can produce and respond to neurochemicals, which can induce neurological and immunological effects on the host.”

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