Is it just me, or does it feel like approximately eight million studies have been released this week dealing with anxiety? Well, I've got another one for you — but at least this one is good news: It seems that eating pickles can alleviate social anxiety. An absolutely delicious way to stave off that something terrible is about to happen? Yes please!
Other, less delightful findings about anxiety that have come to light recently include the following:
- Being double-jointed might be linked to anxiety.
- So might sitting down a lot (bad news for any working adult who holds a desk job).
- And being anxious might also make you less empathetic.
Not so fun. And the thing that really sucks about all of them? They're mostly things we can't really do anything about. Sure, if we all had the funds available to invest in a standing or treadmill desk, we might be able to work on the sitting down one… but if you're double-jointed? Well, then… that's just kind of the way things are and will always be. Gee, thanks for making all of us anxious people even more anxious, science.
But hey, at least this latest piece of research from the College of William and Mary and the University of Maryland actually gives us something to help stave off our anxiety. The researchers were interested in examining the connection between the state of our guts and our mental health; as Matthew Hilimire of William and Mary put it in a release, “It is likely that the probiotics in the fermented foods are favorably changing the environment in the gut, and changes in the gut in turn influence social anxiety. I think that it is absolutely fascinating that the microorganisms in your gut can influence your mind."
As National Geographic's The Plate blog notes, previous research has indicated that microbiome — that is, good bacteria that thrive inside living creatures — are incredibly important for good mental health in mice. One study found that mice whose guts had been stripped of microbes, for example, ended up with boosted levels of stress hormones; as a result, they displayed much more anxious behavior than mice with their gut microbes left intact. Giving the anxious mice a probiotic reduced cortisol levels and alleviated behaviors associated with anxiety and depression.
So: Do the anti-anxiety benefits of probiotics and fermented foods extend to humans? That's what the William and Mary and University of Maryland study aimed to find out. It focused specifically on social anxiety, in which sufferers have “an excessive and unreasonable fear of social situations”; it's typically characterized by a fear of making mistakes or being humiliated in front of other people, and may build into full-blown panic attacks. Could eating a pickle or two on the reg help alleviate some of this anxiety?
Here's how the research went down.
The researchers polled 700 students taking the university's Introduction to Psychology courses during the fall 2014 semester via a questionnaire. This questionnaire asked students to list details about fermented foods they had eaten over the previous 30 days; in order to control for other healthy habits, it also asked them how frequently they exercised and what their average consumption of fruits and vegetables was like. Foods that fall under the heading of “fermented” aren't just limited to cucumber pickles, by the way; things like sauerkraut, kimchi, and yogurt also count.
Interestingly, participants who had eaten more fermented experienced reduced social anxiety — but there's a catch: This correlation was strongest in people who were also high in the personality trait of neuroticism. Exercise also helped stave off anxiety.
So: What Now?
As the researchers noted, there's still plenty of work to be done when it comes to unwinding the connection between our guts and our minds. We can't, for example, assume yet that a correlation between eating pickles and lowered anxiety levels means that eating pickles causes those lowered anxiety levels; actual experiments — not just surveys — need to be conducted in order to examine causality. The good news is there likely is a solid connection to be found: Said Matthew Hilimire, “If we rely on the animal models that have come before us and the human experimental work that has come before us in other anxiety and depression studies, it does seem that there is a causative mechanism. Assuming similar findings in the experimental follow-up, what it would suggest is you could augment more traditional therapies… with fermented foods — dietary changes — and exercise as well.
In the meantime, at least we all have an excuse to eat more pickles. There are certainly less tasty ways to manage anxiety than that!