Our friends, the bacteria.

Posted by Sarah Arel on

When I was a kid my mom brewed kombucha in our hall closet. My sister and I were forced to drink a cup of what we called "mushroom tea" every day, because, regardless of our disgust, it was healthy. (She also put seaweed on our pizza, made her own yogurt and made us take daily garlic pills, but I digress). Because of these childhood "scars", to this day I have struggled to get on board with the kombucha trend and haven't always leaned into the holistic wellness movement. 

Now may be my time. Much to my dismay I have somehow accumulated various essential oils, and my kitchen cabinets contain Pu-erh tea, apple cider vinegar shots and other various powders and potions promising me a healthier, more vital life. Does it all work? Who knows. But finally, my science-loving brain has something fact-based to grab onto. 

Fermentation. Fermenting food is an ancient preservation method that has been around for thousands of years. Fermentation occurs when bacteria or yeasts convert the sugars in food into alcohol and carbon dioxide. In addition to creating really yummy food (hello coffee, chocolate and wine!) fermented foods contain healthy bacteria that are incredibly good for you. 

Most people have heard of probiotics. These bacteria are well known for occurring in yogurt and are great for your belly. They support healthy digestion as well as help with diseases such as diabetes and irritable bowel syndrome. Probiotics work by increasing the diversity of good bacteria, known as your microbiome, in your gut. Having a healthy and diverse microbiome is linked to good digestion, disease prevention, and as we now know good mental health. 

Eat your Way to Happiness. All fermented foods contain high levels of probiotics that research shows can help to improve mental health and decrease social anxiety. Most ancient and traditional diets include consumption of higher levels of fermented foods than the average modern diet. Research has shown that people in Japan who consume a diet rich with fermented soy foods have a 25-30% lower rate of symptoms of depression. Another study looked at women who had higher genetic risks of neuroticism and discovered that those who regularly ate fermented foods had lower levels of social anxiety than the other women with the same risk factors. 

How does this work? This part gets a little tricky- there is still lots of research happening in this area, and I will admit that I personally do not understand all of the biologic pathways and science behind what we do know. What I do know:

  • The probiotics in fermented foods make vitamins such as magnesium, zinc and B vitamins more available for your body to absorb and use. These vitamins are known to aid in positive mental benefits.
  • Fermented foods provide and enhance antioxidants that neutralize cancer-causing free radicals (because what is more stressful than a cancer diagnosis?) 
  • People suffering from depression and anxiety are known to have more inflamed gut microbiomes as well as increased "intestinal permeability". The combination of these two risk factors can allow a toxin called lipopolysaccharide endotoxin access to your whole body (instead of staying in your gut). Research shows that even small elevations of this toxin are know to cause depressive symptoms. 

Sum it all up for me. Basically just eat more fermented foods. Science is pointing directly towards a link between the probiotics and antioxidants found in fermented foods and reduced risk of depression and social anxiety. Best case scenario is a future where we can treat depression and other mental illnesses with food and not drugs. Worst case scenario- the science doesn't live up to the hype but you still spent your life eating lots of yummy foods that provided you good nutrition. 

What to eat.

  • Tempeh
  • Kimchee
  • Kefir
  • Yogurt (please don't get the one with the candy on top)
  • Sauerkraut
  • Miso
  • Vinegar
  • Kombucha (sorry for doubting you, mom)
  • Buttermilk
  • Pickles
  • Sourdough Bread
  • Cocoa
  • Plus so many more here that I have never had but sound awesome.

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Most info came from this paper


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