In the future, rather than popping a Valium, anxious people (like me) might just opt for munching on a pickle. Researchers at William and Mary have shown that eating fermented foods – like yogurt, pickles, sour cream, kimchi, and sauerkraut – can substantially reduce social anxiety.
Over 19 million Americans suffer from the condition known as social anxiety, or "the persistent and overwhelming fear of social situations." It's the second most common anxiety disorder in the country – and studies in mice now point to a shortage of "good" bacteria in the body as the likely cause.
Here's a summary of what the experiment found. Mice whose intestinal tracts had been stripped of bacteria were anxious, depressed, and had higher levels of cortisol, also known as "the stress hormone." However, when these mice were given probiotics ("good" bacteria in edible form), their stress levels dropped and anxiety- and depression-linked behaviors disappeared.
In humans, scientists think that the probiotics found in fermented foods boost the production of a brain chemical called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which mimics the effects of an anti-depressant.
It's fascinating to consider that the bacteria living in our intestines can have such a profound effect on our feelings of well-being. Next time you're feeling anxious, reduce those feelings by having some yogurt or crunching on some pickled vegetables. At the very least, you'll be populating your gut with healthy microbes, and enhancing your digestive health!