How Eating Pickles Might Help Battle Anxiety

“Right here, boys! Right here! Get your cake, pie, dill pickles, and ice cream! All you can eat! Be a glutton! Stuff yourself!” —Barker, “Pinocchio” (1940)

In A Nutshell

If you suffer from social anxiety, new research suggests that there might be a safer alternative to any medication that can be prescribed, and it’s found in your fridge. Fermented foods like pickles, yogurt, and sauerkraut contain probiotics that seem to act in much the same way as some prescription medications do, altering the brain’s neurotransmitters. Studies found that students who frequently ate fermented foods were less likely to suffer from social anxiety, even when their high scores on the neurotic scale suggested they should be more prone to it.

The Whole Bushel

Social anxiety is one of the largest and most far-reaching psychological conditions in the world, and it’s estimated that around 7 percent of the population suffers from it at any given time, and as much as 14 percent of people have it at one time or another.

It’s characterized by an irrational anxiety triggered by certain types of social situations. Those situations vary from person to person and can include things like speaking in front of a group, using a public bathroom, or eating in front of others.

It all stems from a fear that you’re being evaluated by others, that impressions are being formed and that you’re standing out from the crowd as somehow different or wrong.

For some people, it can be so bad that it’s crippling. There’s a whole host of suggestions for people who suffer from one of its various forms, from consulting with a therapist to gradually exposing yourself to situations that make you anxious, a little bit at a time, and building up a tolerance to the things that you might find terrifying.

Research shows that there’s another way to help fight anxiety, and if you like pickles, you’re in luck.

According to researchers from the College of William & Mary and the University of Maryland School of Social Work, people who regularly ate fermented foods seemed to be better equipped to deal with social situations and were less likely to suffer from social anxiety. That included foods like pickles, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and fermented soy milk.

As weird as it sounds, it’s building on something we’re already familiar with.

They looked at the relationship between the probiotics that 700 students were regularly exposed to and compared that to their levels of anxiety. Previous studies already suggested there was a correlation between diet, probiotics, gut bacteria, and a reduction of anxiety and depression in animals, and the studies seemed to indicate that foods were increasing the GABA in the subjects’ system. GABA is the neurotransmitter that anti-anxiety medication focuses on, and the work has shown that some probiotics have the same effects as prescription medications.

The data came from surveys handed out to a cross-section of students, and it also showed that the students who were most likely to benefit from the presence of the good bacteria of fermented foods in their diet were also those who scored high on the “neurotic” scale, making them more prone to social anxiety than their peers.

At a glance, it might seem a bit far-fetched that scarfing down some pickles before a big presentation might help you feel more comfortable.

However, plenty of studies out there support the apparent influence our gut bacteria have on what’s going on in our heads and bodies.

The National Institutes of Health have some pretty staggering numbers when it comes to the bacterial cells in our bodies: They outnumber our human cells by about 10 to 1. We’re made up of millions of bacterial genes, too, so adding the right kind into our systems when we need it the most seems like a logical thing to do, in that context.

Show Me The Proof

William and Mary: It’s not all in your head—it’s in your gut, too
Social Anxiety Institute
Psych Central: 6 Ways to Overcome Social Anxiety
National Geographic: Feeling Anxious? Have a Pickle