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Health Problem & Disorder

Eating Kimchi Helps With Social Anxiety Disorder, Science Says

If you suffer from social anxiety disorder, you know how hard it can be just to show up to things: a work happy hour, your friend’s birthday party, or even your own graduation celebration.

The symptoms of social anxiety disorder are debilitating—not just socially, but emotionally and physically as well. The fear of judgment and constant rumination on your perceived faults is exhausting. The cycle of anxiety prevents you from putting yourself out there and from building real connections with people around you.

Even though social anxiety can make you feel different and alone, you aren’t. According to the Social Anxiety Association, social phobia is the third most prevalent mental health issue today. In fact, national studies show that around 7% of the population suffers from social anxiety at any given time.

If these statistics surprise you, you’ll be even more surprised to learn what potential treatment a recent study has found for addressing social anxiety. (Hint: it’s red, spicy, fermented, and Korean.)

Why Kimchi?

If you guessed kimchi, you’re right! But why would researchers choose to study kimchi?

Well, in this study, Professors Matthew Hilimire and Catherine Forestell of William & Mary and Assistant Professor Jordan DeVylde of the University of Maryland sought to examine the effect that diet can have on mental health. They chose fermented foods like kimchi, miso, and yogurt because they are naturally high in probiotics, small micro-organisms like yeast and bacteria that are believed to have wide-ranging health benefits.

To look into the relationship between probiotics and mental health, these researchers asked nearly 700 undergraduate students at William & Mary how much fermented food they had eaten in the last 30 days. At the same time, the students were tested for the so-called Big Five personality traits and the Social Phobia and Anxiety Inventory.

Researchers then collected and analyzed student responses for any correlation between social anxiety and probiotic intake.

So What Does the Study Say About Social Anxiety Disorder?

The results of this exciting study show that students who eat more fermented foods have less social anxiety. The results were most clear for students who rank highly on the neurotic personality trait scale, which implies that fermented foods most strongly affect those who have the most neurotic tendencies.

Scientific experts are still not certain how exactly probiotics work to reduce anxiety and alleviate other mental health concerns. Several studies suggest that probiotics reduce gut inflammation and leakage and increase GABA, a naturally-produced neurotransmitter that lessens feelings of anxiety.

After the results of this study, though, scientists will definitely want to continue researching how probiotics can have such an incredible effect on the mind.

Why Is This Important?

This study adds to the growing body of research on the surprising ways that gut bacteria can affect both physical and mental health. In the past, research into probiotics focused primarily on digestive benefits, but this study emphasizes the important role that probiotics play outside of the gut.

Although this study indicates a possible link between fermented foods and social anxiety disorder, it’s important to note that this study was observational in nature. In other words, though the study shows that fermented foods and social anxiety are correlated, it’s impossible to state that fermented foods caused the reduced levels of social anxiety.

Next, these three researchers plan to carry out an experimental study, which would have the power to prove that probiotics actually reduce social anxiety. As Dr. Hilimire notes, this is very exciting because it would open doors for those who suffer from social anxiety disorder, allowing doctors to “augment more traditional therapies (like medications, psychotherapy or a combination of the two) with fermented foods – dietary changes – and exercise, as well.”

Tips for Incorporating Kimchi Into Your Diet

Are you interested in trying fermented foods to help relieve your social anxiety? Read these five helpful tips for adding more probiotic-rich fermented foods into your diet.

If you are facing digestive pain or severe social anxiety, always seek advice from your physician or mental health professional first.

1. Choose naturally fermented foods.

Naturally fermented foods have the highest concentration of probiotics. Look for yogurts that have live or “active” cultures and pickles that have been naturally fermented without vinegar.

2. Do not cook fermented foods.

Because high temperatures kill the good bacteria that provides the probiotic punch, avoid cooking any fermented foods or mixing them into hot dishes.

3. Make your own kimchi!

One way to be sure your kimchi is made the natural way is to make it yourself. Try OneGreenPlanet’s vegan kimchi recipe, or make another fermented dish like fermented red cabbage and apple. Both recipes are easy to prepare; the hardest part is waiting for the delicious foods to ferment!

4. Eat fermented foods in moderation.

Like anything else, eat your fermented foods in moderation and don’t start out too strong. Alana Sugar at Whole Foods suggests eating up to 1/2 cup of a fermented food every day or several times a week, depending on how your digestive tract reacts.

5. Try something new.

If you aren’t into kimchi or if you just want to add some variety to your diet, don’t worry! There are hundreds of fermented foods you can try. Top choices include kombucha, cheese, yogurt, sauerkraut, and miso. Try combining them in interesting ways, too, like Prevention’s mouthwatering blueberry-miso smoothie.

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