Ever since I was a little girl I’ve loved salty, pickled foods. I was always the one begging for the pickle out of the big barrel at the deli counter, inhaling lox and capers and gobbling up those black olives from the can on Thanksgiving as fast as I could. So you can imagine how eye-opening it was as an adult to learn about the world of naturally fermented foods and how amazing they can be for our health, especially our mental health!
Naturally fermented foods include vegetables like pickles, sauerkraut and the Korean staple, kimchi, as well as plain yogurt, miso, tempeh, kefir (a fermented milk drink like yogurt), and kombucha (a sweet fermented tea). Fermenting is a ritual that has literally been found in every culture around the world originating as one of the safest ways possible to preserve vegetables, dairy and other perishable foods.
The Difference between Fermented Foods, Pickles and Probiotics
Fermented foods are different from the more commonly-found pickled foods in that vinegar is not used to give that tangy, sour taste. Instead, they go through the organic process of lacto-fermentation in which lactic acid is produced as naturally existing bacteria eat up sugars and starches in the food creating a natural preservative that inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria. The lacto-fermentation process also generates important B vitamins, digestive enzymes, omega-3 fatty acids and multiple strains of probiotics.
Probiotics are well-known for their ability to aid digestion by introducing beneficial bacteria into the gut. Fermented foods are often recommended more favorably than probiotics because they are not limited in the bacteria strains they can add to our gut ecology. In addition, since fermented foods are partially digested they may help make nutrients more available to our bodies. Probiotics have also been heavily lauded for their role in improving immunity, lowering blood pressure, managing blood sugar and relieving constipation and bloating.
The Role of Gut Health, Fermented Foods and our Moods
In recent years, scientists have been captivated by the major role intestinal bacteria have on our state of mind by influencing our stress responses and ability to balance our moods – and vice versa. For one thing, research has found beneficial gut bacteria can help strengthen the intestinal lining that prevents parasites and poorly-digested proteins from entering the bloodstream and disrupting brain function. In addition, studies on fermented foods suggest they can lower brain inflammation causing optimal emotion and mood regulation.
Here are a few ways eating our sauerkraut may put us in a good mood:
- Manage stress: Beneficial gut bacteria can support a healthier stress response by producing more “happy” neurotransmitters such as GABA which inhibits stress. Probiotics have also been found to help the body regulate blood sugar, an important part of the natural stress response. Recent studies on animals have found that mice exposed to good bacteria released less stress hormones when exposed to physical stress than normal mice or those who had been kept in a germ-free environment. In addition, the process of fermentation also increases the availability of B-vitamins, magnesium, and zinc, which have been shown impact mood.
- Reduce social anxiety: Fermented foods have also been shown to reduce tendencies to feel uncomfortable in social situations and to fear being judged by others. People that benefit most tend to be those with the most socially-anxious tendencies. Fermented foods can decrease anxious feelings by reducing inflammation as well increasing production of the neurotransmitter serotonin which can modulate response to anxious situations.
- Ease depression: Depression and other mental health disorders are characterized by chronic, low-grade inflammation and oxidative stress which fermented foods can address. In addition, fermented foods actually help produce positive neurochemicals in your body that create positive emotions and a confident mood. Feelings of optimism and empowerment when eating a healthy diet including fermented foods have actually been shown to outweigh those with anti-depressants!
How to Enjoy Fermented Foods
It is easy to add fermented foods into your diet. They can be eaten like condiments, in small doses and to flavor other foods. Sprinkle some kimchi in soup, dollop yogurt on fruit, add some fermented carrots to your favorite wrap or sip some kombucha while getting dinner ready. Whole Foods features an entire section devoted to fermented veggies, they can often be found at your local farmer’s markets or you can try your hand at making your own gingered carrots. To ensure you're getting the real deal, look for terms on the label like "unpasteurized," "naturally fermented," "raw," or "contains live and active cultures."
- Schmidt, Charles. “Mental Health May Depend on Creatures in the Gut,” Scientific American, March 1, 2015, retrieved from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mental-health-may-depend-on-creatures-in-the-gut/
- Selhub, Eva M. , Logan, Alan C. and Bested, Alison C. “Fermented foods, microbiota, and mental health: ancient practice meets nutritional psychiatry,” The Journal of Physiological Psychiatry, January 15, 2014, Vol. 33(1), Page 2.retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3904694/
- Wellness Mama, “Health Benefits of Fermented Foods”, September 12, 2016, retrieved from: http://wellnessmama.com/2245/health-benefits-fermented-foods/