Pickles may hold the power to relieve anxiety
“Are you a pickle person?” my friend asked.
“I’m a huge pickle person,” I replied, as I reached into a jar of get this, pickles. For good reason, too.
Turns out it might not be just my taste buds yearning for a gherkin. Could be I crave pickles and other fermented foods because my body is trying to combat my anxiety naturally.
A few years ago I became obsessed with pickles. I’ve always liked them but during a particular two-year period I ate them fairly consistently. Looking back, I realized my anxiety symptoms had also significantly decreased during this time. Coincidence?
Too boring, so I’ll dismiss this theory.
There are probably other factors that contributed to my lessened anxiety, and this loose analysis of my daily life is by no means scientific, however a study in 2015 from Virginia’s College of William and Mary and the University of Maryland suggests I could be onto something, stating that fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles and kimchi seem to help calm the nerves of those of us with anxiety, especially social anxiety.
According to this handy-dandy article I found in Smithsonian Magazine:
“Hillmire and his colleagues enlisted 710 college students at William & Mary to record how much fermented food they ate and any symptoms of neuroticism, anxiety or social phobia that they felt over the same period. The team found a link between the amount of fermented food subjects consumed and the level of social anxiety they felt. Particularly neurotic subjects saw a decrease in their symptoms of shyness and fear of social situations when they ate more fermented food.”
So how in the world does a pickle possibly help repair our fickle brains?
Fermented foods contain good bacteria, otherwise known as probiotics. We all need good bacteria to keep our guts happy, and it’s slowly becoming common knowledge that what we put in our gut largely impacts our brain. “We are what we eat,” — it’s an overused phrase that becomes more and more true with time.
This is why just the other day I threw away a half-empty carton of Goldfish. I swear all the processed ingredients were negatively affecting my mood. One fish, too many fish, feel yuckish, trash fish.
But that’s a story for another day.
In short, if our digestive system is happy our brains will be happy, too. The good bacteria in fermented foods increases levels of GABA, which as it turns out is one of the most common chemical messengers found in the brains of mammals. Herein lies the power behind the pickle.
Some researches believe GABA’s purpose is to “control the fear or anxiety experienced when neurons are overexcited.” Ever popped a Valium? It seems fermented foods provoke similar effects because the probiotics found in these foods increase GABA levels, which then calm overactive, fear-inducing, anxiety-riddled minds.
Guess what also effects our gut, but in a truly negative way? Stress and anxiety! Who guessed correctly?
“Every emotion starting in the brain will be reflected in the gut, and anything that happens in the gut will be reflected in some way at the brain level,” — Emeran Mayer, a gastroenterologist, neuroscientist, and UCLA professor (headspace.com).
So what if you’re half way across the world and you feel like you’re experiencing a fermented food famine? Don’t you worry you’re pretty little head. Fermented foods are everywhere and firmly integrated in cultures across the world. From Korea to India to Germany to Iran, you’re sure to find a pickle (or other fermented food) in a jam.
Beware! In my research I learned the difference between fermented foods with probiotics and those without. Those without probiotics have been pasteurized to kill all the bacteria — including the good stuff. Unfortunately, most store brands of pickles do not contain probiotics, not just because they’ve been pasteurized but also because they’re often “pickled” with vinegar.
Yogurt and kimchi are sure bets, but if you’re really craving sauerkraut or pickles, it’s not impossible! Make sure you’re grabbing a product with the good stuff by looking for the words “live and active cultures” or something similar on the label.
I found Bubbies, a fairly available pickle brand that uses traditional fermenting processes. I haven’t tried them yet and can’t vouch for their flavor, but you bet your britches I’m going to run to the nearest Whole Foods, Lucky, Sprouts or Raleys to try them out (they’re available all these places). Their site leads me to believe they also have a spunky attitude, which one needs when located in Stockton, California. Stockton just went up a notch in my book.
This is just a quick break down of the science behind the connection between our brain and gut, but hopefully you get the gist. If further research proves this is all just a bunch of hooey, maybe you’ll fall victim to the placebo effect and won’t be the wiser (like me, since I didn’t realize I have been eating jars and jars of probiotic-less pickles! But I also eat a lot of fermented sauerkraut, so it probably balances out). Not a pickle person? Try one of my other favorite tactics to help ease anxiety while on the go.
Who knew a long green, crunchy, fermented vegetable could be the solution to taming the anxiety beast? I’m telling you, there’s power in the pickle.
Have you tried eating fermented foods to help ease your anxiety? Share your experience in the comments below! Don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter. Thank you!