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Your Brain on Pickles: The Relationship Between Fermented Foods and Mental Health

As a person who’s lived with generalized anxiety disorder and clinical depression since childhood, I’ve wished more than once for a new brain. Clearly, I’ve often thought, this one is defective.

Wishes on stars and birthday candles haven’t been fruitful. Numerous trials of prescription medications, counseling, and self-help techniques have been moderately helpful, at best. And the less respectable self-medication methods I relied upon from my late teens to late 20s produced as much temporary respite as long-term damage.

What I didn’t realize, while chasing whiskey shots with picklebacks on any given evening, was the answer, or a significant part of it, at least, was right under my nose.  

A growing body of research has demonstrated what your great-grandmother probably instinctually knew: Regularly eating naturally fermented foods, including gherkins, kimchi, sauerkraut, pickled ginger, yogurt, and kefir, can improve gut health and reduce anxiety and depression.  

Where Pickles Get Their Power 

Researchers believe pickles’ impact on mental health is thanks to their influence on the gut. The gut, or gastrointestinal system, includes several organs and the enteric nervous system, sometimes referred to as the “second brain.” 

The enteric nervous system is composed of the same type of neurons and neurotransmitters as in the central nervous system. This includes serotonin, the neurotransmitter best known for its relationship to mood and mental health. Researchers estimate 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut. 

This information superhighway communicates directly with the gray matter in our heads and plays a critical role in various functions and processes. 

You know the “gut feeling” you get sometimes? That’s a visceral example of the gut-brain axis at work. 

The gut comprises billions of microorganisms, including bacteria, fungus, and viruses, collectively known as the microbiota.  

Various factors, including environment and diet, can affect the microbiota. This, in turn, can affect mental health, digestive health, immunity, and other intrinsically linked elements. 

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, reports estimated about 19% of Americans had some form of mental illness.

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When it comes to pickles and other fermented foods, researchers believe they’re influential due to their wealth of good bacteria. These bacteria may supplement the bacteria found in the gut, yielding positive results, including increased levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that activates the same neural pathways as certain anti-anxiety medications. 

A 2015 study from the College of William & Mary published in Psychiatry Research specifically examined the effects of pickles on social anxiety. Researchers found eating a gherkin a day may reduce symptoms of social anxiety, especially neurotic tendencies. 

Matthew Hillimire, a psychologist and one of the study’s co-authors, said in a statement that the probiotics in the foods are most likely altering the gut environment and, in turn, impacting anxiety levels.

Studies also indicate a strong relationship between the gut and depression. This includes a correlation between depressive disorders and diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome and increased risk of depression in people with a less-than-flourishing microbiome.  

The Brain-Gut Connection in Medicine 

Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, nutrition specialist, and author of the bestselling book “This Is Your Brain on Food,” told The News Station the study of the brain-gut connection has only recently come to the forefront of medical science.

About 80% of research articles regarding the brain-gut connection, more than 12,000 total, were published between 2013 and 2017, she said. 

But researchers and medical professionals have been aware of the relationship since antiquity. 

“Hippocrates stated: ‘All the diseases begin in the gut,’ and ‘death sits in the bowel,’” Naidoo said. “He was clearly noting the powerful gut connection to disease.” 

Dr. Uma Naidoo

However, the connection didn’t come to the forefront of mainstream medical conversations until the early 1900s.

Naidoo recalled Nobel laureate Elie Metchnikoff who, in the early 1900s, said the foods we consume can alter gut flora and replace harmful microbes with useful ones. 

Ella Rauen-Prestes, founder of Fitbakes, told The News Station the gut is getting more attention because, in the past, fiber-rich and fermented foods were a dietary staple. While drinking a kombucha a day may be in vogue, it’s not the same as regularly consuming various fermented foods. And pickled, fermented foods aren’t mainstays of the average Western diet, nor are natural, whole foods in general. 

This, along with other factors, has contributed to a steady and dramatic decline in mental health and overall wellness. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, reports estimated about 19% of Americans had some form of mental illness

Essentially, people are unwell, unhappy, and looking for answers. 

Siobhán Carroll, the founder of the Nerdy Naturopath, told The News Station that aside from the occasional happy baby, most of her clients have some mental health challenges.  

Carroll said stress and anxiety and a sense of being overwhelmed are the most prevalent issues she sees. While COVID-19 compounds these struggles, Carroll said the modern world can be incredibly stress-inducing, pandemic aside.  

“And when comfort food and a glass of wine, what is used to relieve stress, is also having a negative effect on the gut, around it goes in a vicious cycle,” Carroll said. 

Gut Healing 

Dr. Naidoo, Rauen-Prestes, and Carroll all noted the predominant Western diet and lifestyle aren’t doing us any favors. And for those of us who willfully marched a path to self-destruction for several years, the damage is likely even more severe. 

So, is it possible to reverse course and revive a busted microbiome? 

“The short answer is yes. Gut healing through how you eat, sleep, exercise, hydrate, and pay attention to mindfulness can all impact slow and steady improvement over time,” Naidoo said.

“Adding fiber-rich plant food, beans, nuts, seeds, and legumes to your daily meals will help nurture the gut microbes that need fiber to thrive. Lowering our stress levels also helps with healing the gut. Eating a fiber-rich, whole foods healthy diet packed with phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and protein are all key to helping you improve your microbiome.”

Get Lit.

Rauen-Prestes said it’s difficult to determine the degree to which people can change the state of their gut microbiome. But there is hope, as demonstrated by a study published in 2014 in Nature, which found the gut microbiome can improve significantly within two to four days of eating right. 

Some research also points to the potential for probiotic supplements, coined “psychobiotics,” as well as the much less appealing, though promising prospect of fecal transplants. The latter is just what it sounds like and involves transferring healthy bacteria to an unwell person’s microbiome. 

Rauen-Prestes and Naidoo agree that while supplements may be helpful, it’s imperative to keep in mind they aren’t a substitute for a proper diet. 

On that note, Naidoo said most of us could use more of the following in our diets to promote a healthy microbiome and overall health:

  • Leafy greens, including folate-rich spinach, kale, cabbage, romaine, and spring mix lettuce, which can promote brain health and neurotransmitter function. 
  • Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, bok choy, and arugula contain the anti-inflammatory sulforaphane, which, Naidoo said, can promote healthy gut bacteria, reduce inflammation, and act as an antibiotic. 
  • Probiotics and prebiotics. Prebiotics include onions, leeks, garlic, and asparagus, which feed gut microbes, Naidoo said, whereas probiotics found in fermented foods can provide more healthy gut bacteria, reduce inflammation, and promote brain health and emotional wellness.  
  • Turmeric, which due to its active ingredient curcumin, has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.  
  • Extra dark chocolate, which unlike milk chocolate is high in fiber and antioxidants. Research indicates it can reduce stress and depression symptoms. 

An increasing number of functional and lifestyle medicine professionals address the brain-gut connection in their practice, Naidoo said. But it is not ubiquitous, nor is it so prevalent in other specialties. She hopes that will soon change. 

“I hope that the use of the gut-brain connection in mental health will grow to be central to how we can see nutrition as a powerful tool in the tool kit for mental fitness.”

Kate Daniel is a freelance writer and journalist from the Pacific Northwest. Before becoming a digital nomad and full-time freelancer, she was a reporter for Whidbey News Group and received four regional awards for her work.

Kate Daniel is a freelance writer and journalist from the Pacific Northwest. Before becoming a digital nomad and full-time freelancer, she was a reporter for Whidbey News Group and received four regional awards for her work.

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