Have social anxiety? Try eating more fermented foods. Seriously.

Steffi Au

Apparently the cliché, ‘you are what you eat,’ might actually be true.

It sounds crazy, but new research suggests that eating certain foods like pickles, sauerkraut, and yogurt may affect your emotions. Psychologists at the College of William & Mary recently found a link between a diet high in fermented foods and reductions in social anxiety.

“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,” Dr. Matthew Hilimire, an assistant professor of psychology and one of the authors of the study, said in a statement. “I think that it is absolutely fascinating that the microorganisms in your gut can influence your mind.”

For the study, over 700 undergraduates were asked about their consumption of fermented foods and were assessed for Big Five personality traits and social anxiety. As the researchers predicted, eating fermented foods was correlated with decreased social anxiety. The most neurotic people benefited the most from fermented foods — neuroticism being a personality trait that is characterized by negative emotions like fear, anxiety, moodiness, worry, frustration, and loneliness.

How do fermented foods influence mood? There are a few possible mechanisms:

  • These foods contain probiotics, which are live, “good” bacteria that support digestion and gut health, as well as immune and neurological function. Increasing the balance of good bacteria may decrease something called intestinal permeability (also known as “leaky gut”), which is a condition that has been linked with depression.
  • More good bacteria in your gut also means less inflammation, which may be linked to a decrease in stress, anxiety, and depression.
  • Probiotics may increase GABA, a neurotransmitter that calms the brain’s fear response.

Not all introverts are socially anxious

Social anxiety isn’t just an introvert thing — both introverts and extroverts can suffer from it. However, it’s not uncommon for us introverts to struggle with social anxiety, because we’re sensitive to our environment and we become overstimulated easily. We also tend to ruminate on our experiences more, often scrutinizing social interactions long after they’ve happened. Furthermore, we tend to be more tuned-in to people and subtleties. We see a look on someone’s face, and we nervously start to wonder what it means — is this person unhappy? Did we do something wrong?

Highly sensitive people are also more prone to anxiety. “Being highly sensitive means that you are subjected to a daily, if not hourly, dose of other people’s feelings,” writes Deborah Ward, author of Overcoming Low Self-Esteem with Mindfulness. “When you combine that with the sensory overload most of us face, including too much noise, lights, crowds and an overly rushed pace that feels frantic, many HSPs are left feeling shaken by their experiences.”

If you suffer from social anxiety, you’re not alone. According to the Social Anxiety Institute, millions of people all over the world have this debilitating condition — in fact, it’s the third largest psychological disorder in the United States. Social anxiety is characterized by the tendency to feel irrationally nervous and uncomfortable in social settings and to fear being judged negatively by others, leading to avoidance of social situations.

Foods that may reduce social anxiety

The researchers say it’s too early to make specific dietary recommendations, and more research is needed to determine if there is a causal relationship between fermented food consumption and lowered social anxiety — meaning, are these foods actually causing the drop in anxiety, or are other factors coming into play? Future studies could test supplementing drug or talk therapy with eating fermented foods, Dr. Catherine Forestell, an associate professor of psychology and one of the study’s authors, told I, D.

However, adding more fermented foods to your diet certainly couldn’t hurt. Fermented foods featured in the study include:

  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha
  • Yogurt
  • Fermented soy products
  • Pickles
  • Kefir

Social anxiety test

Want to get a sense of your level of social anxiety and start figuring out what to do about it? Try this free, quick test from the Social Anxiety Institute.

Image credit: Deviant Art (Steffi Au)


1 Comment

  • Bill says:

    Thanks for helping me find out why my life has been in turmoil for so long. I’ve been making my own yogurt and kefir for a long time (both very easy), and can now see why I’m much calmer these days.

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