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Eating Fermented Foods For Social Anxiety Disorder: Preliminary Study Suggests Benefit

Fermentation is considered the conversion of carbohydrates to organic acids using yeast and/or bacteria.  During the fermentation process, millions of tiny microorganisms become infused with the food so that when consumed, those bacteria enter your gut. While all the health effects associated with consumption fermentation of foods remain unknown, most evidence suggests that regular consumption could be conducive to optimal neurophysiological functioning.

Throughout the evolution of humanity, fermented foods were consumed regularly often out of necessity.  Millions of years ago, humans didn’t have the luxury of leisurely walking through the grocery store and choosing from the thousands of available items; they ate whatever they could find, hunt, or gather.  In many cases, this meant eating foods that had been fermented such as rotten fruits.

Perhaps a major problem with westernized diets is that most food is thoroughly cleaned and sterilized to the point that all (potentially valuable) microorganisms from fermentation are eradicated.  This means that unless you are eating fermented foods regularly, your gut health may be suboptimal.  New research also suggests that your mental health may be poorer as well, with one study noting that increased fermented food consumption could reduce social anxiety.

The Gut-Brain Connection: A Symbiotic Relationship

If you’ve ever felt butterflies in your stomach or noticed an unexpected surge of emotion coming from your “gut” – this is no coincidence.  There is a symbiotic relationship between your gut and brain.  The bacteria (microorganisms) in your gut are capable of sending signals to your brain and the rest of your physiology.

Some experts have argued that by changing the health of the gut, we can change the health of the brain.  Your gastrointestinal (GI) tract is highly adapted to sense and trigger emotions such as: anger, anxiety, euphoria, and depression.  Millions of years ago, humans didn’t have fully developed prefrontal corticies and possibly made decisions based on their “gut” just as much as their brain.

If you’ve ever heart the expression “go with your gut instinct” – most people are referring to following your intuition.  Scientifically, this “gut feeling” may be generated by a complex interaction between your intestinal flora and brain.  Those that don’t believe in the gut-brain connection need only to think of a delicious meal.

Thinking of food can instantaneously send signals to the gut which triggers the release of certain stomach “juices” before food is consumed.  Many people mistakenly think that the brain only signals the gut, but the relationship is a two-way street.  Distress within the gut flora can signal feelings of anger, anxiety, and depression to the brain – prompting neurochemical changes.

There is evidence that many psychological interventions are effective for treating gastrointestinal disorders, but targeting the gut to great psychological disorders remains underinvestigated.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3904694/

Eating Fermented Foods for Social Anxiety Disorder (The Research)

Two psychology professors (Matthew Hilimire and Catherine Forestell) from the College of William & Mary teamed up with a University of Maryland professor (Jordan DeVylder) to determine whether there was a connection between fermented food consumption (containing probiotics) and social anxiety in young adults.  Their hypothesis was that increased consumption of fermented foods may be associated with less social anxiety.

This hypothesis was based on the fact that animal models and human clinical trials suggest that probiotics may elicit anxiolytic effects.  The study involved a total of 710 “young adult” participants (445 of which were female).  These participants were then instructed to complete self-report measures for fermented food consumption, neuroticism, and social anxiety.

Researchers controlled for demographics, consumption of “healthy” foods, and exercise frequency.  They discovered that they were able to predict social anxiety based on neuroticism scores, exercise frequency, and fermented food consumption.  Some of the foods that were asked about in the survey included:

  • Juices with microalgae
  • Kefir
  • Kimchi
  • Miso soup
  • Pickles
  • Sauerkraut
  • Soy milk
  • Tempeh
  • Yogurt

Results from the study highlighted that fermented food consumption as associated with a significant reduction in social anxiety symptoms.  It was suggested that while not all of the foods contain live or active cultures, many still contain beneficial bacteria. Authors noted that fermented foods containing probiotics could protect against social anxiety symptoms, especially among individuals at genetic risk (as determined by neuroticism scores).

It was noted that further research is warranted to determine the degree to which consumption of fermented foods affects levels of anxiety.  They also mentioned that fermented food consumption (with probiotics) could be a safe, minimal-risk method for mitigating social anxiety symptoms.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25998000

How Fermented Food Consumption May Reduce Social Anxiety

There are many ways in which consumption of fermented foods may reduce anxiety including: restoration of microorganisms, increasing favorable biogenic amines (neurotransmitters), and reducing inflammation.

  • Epigenetic influence: It is possible that the microorganisms contained within fermented foods may have epigentic implications. In other words, consistent consumption of fermented foods may activate (or deactivate) various genes.  They could potentially shut off certain genes associated with social anxiety or activate other genes that help offset anxiety in social situations.
  • Inflammation: High levels of inflammation are often associated with poor mental health. Individuals with anxiety may have overt abnormalities in inflammatory markers such as: C-reactive protein (CRP), interleukin (IL-6), and tumor-necrosis factor (TNF-alpha).  It is speculated that fermented foods may reduce inflammation, perhaps a mechanism by which anxiety also improves.
  • Microorganisms: The microorganisms derived from fermented foods help replenish optimal gut health. Many people have eaten nothing but sterilized foods and don’t have any beneficial gut bacteria within their intestinal tract.  By reintroducing certain strains of microorganisms, gut health may significantly improve.
  • Micronutrients: Many fermented foods are nutritious and provide micronutrients that could reduce the severity of a person’s social anxiety. Micronutrient deficiencies can take a toll on a person’s psychological health, potentially causing anxiety.  Fermented foods could be considered part of an optimal diet for mental health.
  • Neurotransmission: Since there is a symbiotic relationship between your gut and your brain, it makes sense that changes to your gut may induce changes to your brain. It is speculated that alterations to your gut flora may result in changes to neurotransmitter densities.  Although it is unknown whether low serotonin or too much serotonin causes social anxiety, fermented foods may alter concentrations of various neurochemicals associated with well-being and relaxation.
  • Oxidative stress: There are well-established links between oxidative stress and poorer mental health. Those with conditions like anxiety disorders tend to have greater amounts of cellular oxidative stress compared to those with normative mental health.  Fermented food consumption is thought to reduce oxidative stress, which may in part reduce anxiety.

Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24422720

Will eating fermented foods help all cases of social anxiety?

Probably not.  It is difficult to assume that every case of social anxiety is caused by abnormalities within the gut.  It should not be assumed that every case of social anxiety has the same root cause – root causes may be subject to individual variation.  That said, most cases of social anxiety are likely a byproduct of genetic inheritance and epigenetic triggers.

Eating fermented foods is more likely to help some cases of anxiety, especially the cases that are milder and/or weren’t induced by genetics.  Perhaps someone developed social anxiety as a result of poor dietary intake, resulting in a decline in the health of gut flora.  Correcting the gut health for these individuals may translate to reduced social anxiety and/or improve functionality in social situations.

This shouldn’t be thought of as a universally effective treatment, but it should be considered for every case of social anxiety.  Fermented foods are regarded as healthy and most people don’t get enough.  It is well-established that gut flora interacts with brain functioning; therefore improving the gut may simultaneously enhance mental health.

The gut plays a major role in neurotransmission

Your enteric nervous system starts in the esophagus and extends down to the anus.  It is the enteric nervous system that contains over 500 million neurons, approximately 1/200th of the amount in your brain.  Despite the fact that the brain contains more neurons, the gut is sometimes referenced as a “second brain” for good reason.

Some sources estimate that gut is responsible for approximately 90% of the body’s 5-HT (serotonin) production.  In addition, the gut also utilizes over 30 other neurotransmitters including: dopamine and acetylcholine.  Approximately half of the entire body’s dopamine can be found within the gut.

Damage to the gut flora or insufficient levels of healthy bacteria may reduce the capacity to produce various neurotransmitters.  It should be speculated that fermented foods may help restore gut health (among individuals with suboptimal flora) and ultimately support healthy neurotransmitter functioning – particularly for serotonin.

Are any new probiotics being developed to treat social anxiety?

While I don’t know of any probiotics undergoing clinical trials for the treatment of social anxiety, there is a new anxiety medication on the horizon being developed by Clasado Biosciences Limited considered a “prebiotic.”  The substance “B-GOS” is a prebiotic formulated with non-digestible food ingredients that stimulate the production of healthy bacteria in the colon.  As of now, you probably shouldn’t get too excited as it is only in Phase I of clinical trials.

Results from early reports suggest that it decreases waking cortisol levels and also attentional vigilance of negative information.  Since most people with social anxiety are often overfocused on negative information and generate high levels of cortisol, in theory this substance may have some promise.

Fixing the gut is just one piece of the puzzle…

For most people with social anxiety, fixing the gut should be considered just one piece of the social anxiety puzzle.  Correcting gut flora may yield significant benefit for some individuals, but minimal or no benefit for others.  It is important to consider that the gut is just one (potential) component of the social anxiety equation.

It isn’t known whether poor gut health is caused by certain genes that influence social anxiety or whether social anxiety is influenced by dietary choices that affect gut health.  Just like suggesting that brain circuitry needs to be corrected, neurotransmitter levels are abnormal, brain waves are too fast, etc. – these are all likely to be “clues” (symptoms) of a larger problem stemming from maladaptive genetic polymorphisms.

Have you tried eating fermented foods for social anxiety?

If you haven’t tried eating fermented foods or fixing your gut health, there’s preliminary evidence to suggest that you may find it beneficial for social anxiety.  The millions of bacteria that can be derived from fermented foods alter bacterial activity in the gut, which in turn is hypothesized to send different signals to the brain; resulting in altered neurotransmission.

Assuming you have social anxiety, you may want to conduct a little self-experiment by picking up some fermented foods.  Take an inventory rating the severity of your social anxiety before you eat any of these foods.  Introduce them into your diet once per day and make sure you’re purchasing them from a reputable source (with a legitimate fermentation).

After a month or so of eating these foods, re-take the same social anxiety inventory and note whether your anxiety levels increased, decreased, or stayed the same.  Understand that you may be prone to the placebo effect when self-experimenting, but a positive placebo effect is certainly better than no effect.  Share a comment below documenting your experience and/or whether you noticed that eating fermented foods reduce your anxiety.

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