Get cultured

by Donna Fleming / 25 June, 2015
Scientists suspect fermented foods can help ease social anxiety.
Sauerkraut. Photo/Thinkstock

It sounds like some bizarre old wives’ tale: if you want to overcome extreme shyness, try eating sauerkraut. It’s not a joke. A recent study has found that people who eat more fermented foods such as sauerkraut and yogurt have fewer experiences of social anxiety. This phobia can lead to sufferers struggling to interact with people, especially strangers, and can interfere with their ability to work, have relationships and get on with normal daily activities.

This kind of anxiety disorder is typically treated with antidepressants, counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy. But tucking into miso soup may also be effective, according to research carried out by the University of Maryland and the College of William and Mary in the US, and published in Psychiatry Research. Psychologists questioned more than 700 people about their lifestyles and found that those who ate more fermented foods had fewer social anxiety symptoms. The researchers believe that the probiotic content of fermented foods is responsible.

Probiotics are “friendly” bacteria that increase our levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that plays a role in our emotions. The way GABA works is mimicked by anti-anxiety medications, and more GABA in the body means fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.

The researchers concluded that although further investigation is needed, the results of the study suggest that eating fermented foods that contain probiotics may serve as “a low-risk intervention” for reducing social anxiety.

Pickles. Photo/Thinkstock

If fermented foods really can make us less uptight in social situations, then that’s one more thing to add to the list of benefits they provide. Previous research into these foods indicates that, among other things, they may be able to improve digestion, boost the immune system and speed up a sluggish metabolism, which can help with weight loss.

Fermenting foods has been a common practice for centuries – it was one of man’s earliest attempts to preserve food. Fermentation occurs when bacteria, yeast and enzymes are used to convert carbohydrates to alcohol or organic acids. Micro-organisms eat up sugars, which is why many fermented foods taste sour. This stops food from putrefying and also produces probiotics.

Before canning was commonplace and fridges were available, people would eat vegetables in season, then ferment the leftovers to last through winter. Fermentation is also the process used to make alcohol and bread. Common fermented foods include sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), yogurt, miso soup and kimchi (Korean fermented vegetables).

Eating fermented foods can help balance the bacteria in our gut – where we have what are considered “good” and “bad” bacteria. Too much bad bacteria can lead to a host of problems, including food intolerances, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue and skin disorders.

Because what’s going on in our gut also affects our immune and nervous systems, creating a healthy digestive environment can have a knock-on effect throughout our bodies. Many medical professionals believe factors such as a sugar-heavy diet, stress and the prolonged use of antibiotics create an imbalance of bacteria in the body, leading to a range of issues, including bloating, fatigue, diarrhoea, headaches, general inflammation and sugar cravings, as well as more serious disease. One way to rectify this imbalance is to up your intake of probiotic-laden fermented food.

It’s also thought that the fermentation process has health benefits besides producing probiotics. For example, turning cabbage into sauerkraut increases the glucosinolate compounds in this vegetable, which are believed to fight cancer.

Fermented foods aren’t difficult to make at home and are increasingly available in supermarkets and specialist stores. Do your research before making your purchase, though, as some commercially prepared products are pasteurised and cooked at a high heat, which kills any good bacteria, and some contain unhealthy added extras – for example, flavoured yogurt can contain added sugar, and pickles and miso can be high in sodium.

It’s also important to read labels when it comes to pickles. Some types can be fermented, but only if they’re pickled in brine (salt and water) and not vinegar. Even though vinegar is a product of fermentation, it prevents natural fermentation from occurring in foods.

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