You’re probably aware of the benefits of probiotics (aka “friendly” bacteria) for digestive health, which include reduced bloating, management of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), and help with diarrhea triggered by antibiotics or traveling. What you may not know is that probiotics are also tied to a slew of additional health benefits, from skin and oral health, to immune support, cholesterol reduction, and even weight control.
Now a new study, published in the journal Psychiatry Research shows that consuming these "good" bacteria in fermented foods may also help curb social anxiety. The study, from College of William and Mary, included more than 700 students (mostly women) enrolled in an intro psychology class. Each participant filled out a questionnaire about his or her consumption of fermented foods, like yogurt or sauerkraut. They also answered personality questionnaires designed to tease out patterns of neuroticism (a personality trait) and social anxiety. In the end, researchers found that people with neurotic personalities were more likely to experience social anxiety, and that eating fermented foods was tied to a lower likelihood of symptoms.
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This fascinating study adds to a growing body of research about the potential effects of probiotics on mental well-being. One animal study, from McMaster University in Ontario, swapped gut bacteria from mice with different personalities. Fearless mice became timid after receiving microbes from anxious counterparts, and vice versa. Aggressive mice also became calm when researchers changed their gut microbes by altering their diets.
A human study from UCLA found that women who received a probiotic-rich yogurt rather than a placebo experienced brain changes that reduced their emotional responses to images of angry or frightened faces. Scientists say these effects are a result of a “communication highway” between the gut and the brain, and show that gut bacteria are powerful brain influencers.
While much of this research is still in its infancy, bolstering your diet by incorporating these four types of probiotic-rich foods is an easy (and tasty) way to take advantage of the potential benefits.
Think beyond Oktoberfest! Eat this goodie year round “as is” as an easy side dish, add it to garden salads and sandwiches, or include a dollop on top of soup, cooked or chilled lentils, hummus, or potatoes.
Add this Korean staple, typically made from fermented cabbage, radishes, or cucumbers, to omelets, veggie salads, whole grain rice or noodles, or use kimchi as a topping for tacos, pizza, or "clean" lean proteins, like seafood, poultry, or beans.
Make it sweet or savory. Use plain yogurt, seasoned with garlic, black pepper and herbs as a dip, or the base of a dressing for slaw, potatoes, or chilled veggie sides, like dilled cucumbers. Sweeten yogurt with fruit, along with herbs and spices like cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom, or mint. Add nuts and whole grains, like rolled oats, or cooked, chilled quinoa, to make muesli, or layered parfaits.
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Drink kefir straight up, whip it into smoothies, or stir in add-ins, like fruit and shaved dark chocolate, and pour into popsicle molds. Plain kefir can also be seasoned in savory ways and used for sauces and dressing. If you don’t eat dairy you can find plant-based versions of both yogurt and kefir.
If you’re considering a supplement only do so if you’re healthy; otherwise check with your doctor first. If you have any allergies or intolerances read the ingredient lists carefully – some probiotics may contain gluten, soy, or milk derivatives. Look for one that contains about 5 billion CFU’s, or colony forming units. CFUs indicates the number of live active cultures per pill. Talk to your doctor or personal nutritionist about which brand or strains of bacteria are best for you. Also be sure to check the expiration date, keep the pills either refrigerated or away from heat and light (check the label) to preserve the bacteria, and do not exceed the recommended dose.
Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the New York Yankees MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Cynthia is a three time New York Times best selling author, and her brand new book is Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.