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Can Fermented Food Elevate Your Mood?

Scientists have been making some surprising discoveries about what really constitutes a happy meal, and it’s a far cry from the burger and fries you’d pick up at your local fast-food joint.

Instead, think kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt and tempeh. These fermented foods are teeming with healthy bacteria called probiotics. You’ve probably heard that word, and also know that these microorganisms are a boon to maintaining a well-functioning digestive system.

From belly to brain

Now researchers are beginning to use a new term—psychobiotics—to describe the impact probiotics have not only on our digestion but also on our mood. In promising studies done on both mice and humans, boosting the levels of gut microbes has been shown to increase neurochemicals like dopamine and serotonin that are linked to happiness.

The exciting field began in 2011 when a team of researchers at University College Cork in Ireland, and McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, showed that anxious mice fed a probiotic-rich broth became less apprehensive and more—pardon the pun—gutsy. Dropped into a tall cylinder of water, the mice that were fed the broth spent more time swimming and less time floating in a state of what the researchers called “behavioral despair.”

Two years later, a group of scientists at UCLA set out to test whether the human brain might also be influenced by gut bacteria. In a small study, a dozen women ate yogurt that contained live cultures twice a day for four weeks. A control group of women didn’t eat the probiotic-rich yogurt.

Chilling out with yogurt

At the end of the month, instead of being dropped into a vat of water like the mice, the women underwent fMRI brain scans while resting and while performing a task in which they matched faces to negative emotions like fear and anger. Those scans showed significant differences between the two groups of women in several regions of the brain that are involved in processing sensory input and emotions.

In brief, the yogurt eaters reacted more calmly to the angry and fearful faces than did their yogurt-skipping peers. “The contrast was clear,” the lead researcher told reporters. “This was not what we expected, that eating yogurt twice a day for a few weeks would do something to your brain.”

Justin Sonnenburg and Erica Sonnenburg, Ph.D.s, husband-and-wife microbiologists at Stanford University and co-authors of the bestselling book The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-Term Health, caution that this psychobiotic research is in its infancy. But, they write, “it seems not too much of a stretch to assume that improving the overall health of your [gut] microbiota could have a positive impact on your mental well-being.”

Modern-day tonics and elixirs

None of this comes as a surprise to Chakra Earthsong Levy. She began fermenting her own beans, seeds and cheese as a teenager back in the ’70s. “My mother had chronic health problems related to her gut,” Chakra says, “and our family life revolved around her flare-ups. I wanted to do everything I could to avoid that.”

In 2010, after decades as a nutrition coach, Chakra co-founded the fermented beverage company KeVita. Now a leader in the field, KeVita offers lines of sparkling probiotic drinks, kombucha tea and probiotic apple cider tonics.

Although Chakra is careful not to make any health claims for her drinks, she says “it makes sense that consuming live food like yogurt or kombucha makes people feel enlivened and uplifted. I hear that from friends and customers all the time.”

For optimal microbiotic well-being, Chakra suggests getting doses of these beneficial bacteria throughout the day. Here are some ways to sneak more of these microbes into your diet.

1.  Make miso a base of your salad dressing. For a two-ingredient vinaigrette, simply mix the fermented soybean paste with whatever citrus you have on hand. The Kitchn suggests a ratio of two teaspoons of white, yellow or red miso to two to three tablespoons of fresh orange, lemon or lime juice.

2. Get to know nama shoyu. Use this unpasteurized soy sauce, which is rich in beneficial bacteria, to flavor steamed or sautéed veggies, quinoa, rice or couscous.

3. Pick the right pickles. If they’re not refrigerated they’re not fermented, so skip the jar on your supermarket shelf and head for the cold storage section. “Any product that contains live probiotics will tout the benefit on the packaging,” Chakra points out.

4.  Embrace yogurt. It’s the easiest way to get a hit of probiotics. Enjoy it with muesli or blended into a smoothie for breakfast, with fresh fruit for a healthy dessert or mixed with diced cucumber and chopped dill or mint as a relish for chicken or fish.

5. Ditch the afternoon coffee. Swap your afternoon latte for kombucha, kefir or a sparkling probiotic beverage.

6. Taste-test probiotic-rich foods that you haven’t tried. Your local Whole Foods, Sprouts or any well-stocked healthy market will offer a wide selection of tempeh, kimchi and sauerkraut. Chakra’s favorite sources for fermented foods are Wildbrine  (their nine kraut flavors include “curry cauliflower,” “ beets & their greens,” “brussel kraut” and “red beet and red cabbage”) and Farmhouse Culture. It suggests enjoying its smoked jalapeño kraut on a grilled cheese sandwich or in a burrito and their horseradish leek kraut with grilled veggies or smoked salmon.

Shelley Levitt is a freelance writer based in Southern California.

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