Scientists have discovered a method to potentially help people overcome social anxiety: Eat yogurt…and pickles…and miso soup. (Photo: Getty Images)
According to a study of over 700 people published in the journal Psychiatry Research, fermented foods that contain probiotics or have the potential to contain probiotics and bioactive peptides may reduce symptoms of social anxiety.
For the study, researchers gave college students a questionnaire that measured social anxiety and neuroticism, among other traits, and asked about eating habits — particularly how many fermented foods they ate over the last 30 days, such as yogurt, kefir, fermented soy milk, miso soup, sauerkraut, some dark chocolates, microalgae juices (aka green juices), pickles, tempeh, and kimchi.
The questionnaire also asked how often they exercise and how many fruits and vegetables they eat on average to control for healthy eating habits outside of how many fermented foods they eat.
Researchers discovered that students who had neurotic tendencies (which are linked to social anxiety) and ate more fermented food had lower symptoms of social anxiety.
Study author Matthew Hilimire, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at The College of William & Mary tells Yahoo Health that he was “a little surprised” about his findings, which are the first to find a link between non-manipulated foods, personality, and social anxiety.
While his study didn’t address how fermented foods that contain probiotics can help lower social anxiety, he points to previous findings that may help explain the link. Probiotics reduce inflammation in the gut, and because anxiety is often accompanied by gastrointestinal symptoms, reducing gut inflammation helps alleviate those symptoms, he explains. Probiotics have also been shown to modify the body’s response to stress, and stress response is highly linked to mental health disorders such as social anxiety. They can also change the expression of the neurotransmitter GABA, which can typically reduce anxiety.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, nearly seven percent of the U.S. population struggles with social anxiety disorder, and 36 percent of people who suffer from it say they experience symptoms for 10 or more years before seeking help.
But can overcoming social anxiety be as simple as having a yogurt? Probably not, says Reid Wilson, PhD, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and author of “Don’t Panic: Taking Control of Anxiety Attacks.”
“It’s exciting to know that there’s something to be added to our options around helping people who struggle with social anxiety, but I would find it unlikely that fermented food would turn the corner for people because social anxiety so psychological,” he tells Yahoo Health.
Wilson explains it this way: People who suffer from social anxiety have typically struggled with it for the majority of their lives. (He’s seen patients who can even recall difficulty going to kindergarten for the first week.) That anxiety can build up trauma and social shyness that has to be worked through in order to help them move past it.
But Hilimire points out that his study results have simply found that eating more fermented foods that contain probiotics can help reduce symptoms of social anxiety — not cure it altogether.
His research didn’t find specific recommendations on how much people should strive to eat but says for now, “it simply seems like more is better.”
Pass the kimchi.
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