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Eating Kimchi and Yogurt Can Make You a Less Awkward Person

This study—which links probiotic foods with improved social engagement and decreased neurosis—will have you swapping your medication for a dill pickle.
Foto vonSusy Morris via Flickr

Brace yourself, millennials. It turns out a quick dip in a lap pool filled with kimchi followed by a rendezvous in a Willy Wonka-esque kefir waterfall just might cure you of your crippling social anxiety.

It's no secret that Generation Y and debilitating social anxiety are like Kenny Loggins and the act of world domination. They just belong together. But that unshakable truth could soon change.

According to a study by William and Mary psychology professors Matthew Hilimire and Catherine Forestell—along with University of Maryland School of Social Work Assistant Professor Jordan DeVylder—what you put in your gut can directly control your brain.


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Researchers found that young adults who eat more fermented foods have fewer social anxiety symptoms, with the effect being greatest among those at genetic risk for social anxiety disorder as measured by neuroticism. This means the more neurotic you are, the more the fermented foods will help your social anxiety.

What kind of fermented foods are we talking about? Yogurt, kefir, fermented soy milk, miso soup, sauerkraut, some dark chocolates, microalgae juices, pickles, tempeh and kimchi. Good thing I'm like three-fourths of the way through construction on my pan-Pacific underwater koji-smuggling tunnel.

According to the researchers, "The main finding was that individuals who had consumed more fermented foods had reduced social anxiety. And the secondary finding was that more exercise was related to reduced social anxiety, as well."

So, why do fermented foods work in this way?

Fermented foods contain probiotics, "the beneficial microorganisms that help our health," according to the scientists. These probiotics favorably change the bacterial environment in the gut. This in turn decreases inflammation and increases something called GABA, which is a neurotransmitter—but not just any neurotransmitter. It is a "neurotransmitter that's mimicked by anti-anxiety medications like benzodiazepines." You know, benzos? Our old friends, Valium, Xanax, Klonopin, and the rest of the gang. It's like a family reunion, but you can't feel your face and you won't remember it.


As Hilimire explains, by increasing GABA, "it's almost like giving [people] these drugs, but it's their own bodies producing GABA . . . . So your own body is increasing this neurotransmitter that reduces anxiety."

And as if that wasn't enough drug talk for a food-centric publication, turns out scientists are also aiming to probe the possible association with everyone's favorite party-starter, MDMA, and social anxiety in autistic patients.

Anyways, the study controlled for demographics and the general consumption of healthful foods. Previous studies had already shown a connection between probiotics and the reduction of general anxiety and depression.

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The gut-brain connection is a hot topic in science lately. Still, no one thought the connection would show itself so clearly. "I think there [was] some skepticism that there can be such a profound influence, but the data is quite substantial now," said Hilimire.

Transcendental meditation and soothing whale songs be damned: Pass the kombucha.