According to Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 15 million adults in the U.S. have social anxiety disorder. Onset typically occurs at 13 years old, and over one-third of people suffer with the symptoms for 10 years or more before seeking help. Social anxiety disorder causes extreme fear in social situations where judgment and being scrutinized is considered likely. (1, 2)
Social anxiety disorder is more than just shyness; it is an overwhelming fear of embarrassment and humiliation in a social situation. For those with this condition, their life is often wrought with loneliness and isolation. For some, the symptoms cause disruption in daily life, affect social and romantic relationships, jobs, and education. Many sufferers feel hopeless and powerless – their anxiety is simply too great on a day-to-day basis.
To combat social anxiety disorder, the most common course of action has been prescription medications such as benzodiazepines, beta blockers and antidepressants. (3) While these medications sometimes have their place, their side effects are well documented. A safer, better-tolerated solution may have been discovered – probiotics like those found in fermented foods.
Recent research spearheaded by the University of Maryland School of Social Work and William & Mary have found a link between social anxiety disorder and the gut health, challenging conventional wisdom. In the study published in the journal Psychiatry Research, researchers found that young adults who eat more fermented foods, have fewer social anxiety symptoms. (4) The greatest impact of fermented foods was found in young adults with an elevated risk for social anxiety disorder.
How Fermented Foods Reduce Social Anxiety
Previous research had focused on animal studies, and in these models, probiotics were shown to make animals less depressed and anxious. The launching point for the researchers at William & Mary and at University of Maryland was clear – do probiotics benefit humans with social anxiety, too – and the answer seems to be “yes.”
In the study, researchers asked 700 students about exercise frequency, social anxiety and phobias, as well as about any fermented foods they ate regularly. Specifically noted were yogurt, kefir, fermented soy milk, miso soup, sauerkraut, dark chocolate, pickles, tempeh and kimchi. When the research was compiled, it showed that students that consumed more fermented foods had reduced social anxiety. More physical exercise was also related to reduced social anxiety.
In fact, while researchers in this landmark study agree that further investigation is necessary, the results suggest that consuming fermented foods and drinks that contain probiotics may reduce social anxiety, serving as a low-risk intervention for this devastating disorder. (5)
So, how is it that our gut is connected to our brain? Well, researchers from University College Cork in Ireland have found that the microbiota influence the gut-brain communication, and subsequently, behavior. In their animal models, they found that depression is linked to the interplay of the brain and gut health and indicate that further studies are required to determine the effectiveness of influencing gut microbiota in humans with depression, anxiety and co-occurring conditions like IBS. (6)
A previous trial conducted by researchers across several disciplines at the University of Toronto found that individuals with chronic fatigue syndrome who also have emotional disturbances, including anxiety, benefit from probiotics. This randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study gave chronic fatigue syndrome patients 24 billion Lactobacillus casei, or a placebo daily for two months. Stool samples were studied, and in those taking the probiotics, there was a greater concentration of healthy bacteria and a significant decrease in anxiety. (7)
The enteric nervous system is in our gut and is often referred to our second brain. You know when you get nervous and you experience butterflies in your stomach? Is it possible that those butterflies are a result of poor gut health? Emeran Mayer, a professor of physiology, psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA states, “A big part of our emotions are probably influenced by the nerves in our gut.” (8)
Michael Gershon, chairman of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, and author of the book The Second Brain surmises that butterflies in the stomach are signaling for a physiological stress response. In fact, having a gut that is in turmoil or out of balance can change our moods.
VNS therapy used to treat depression, epilepsy and anxiety — and may mimic the natural signals from the brain to the gut (butterflies and other responses), according to Gershon. In the VNS protocol, a pacemaker like device is implanted to provide regular electrical charges that stimulate the vagus nerve, reducing anxiety and depression and preventing epileptic seizures. (9, 10)
There is much we still don’t know about the mind-gut connection, but there is an emerging trend to examine it and a s a result the field of neurogastroenterology is growing. This multidisciplinary field focuses on the study of the brain, gut, how they interact, GI motility and GI disorders. (10, 11)
All of this research and ongoing study supports consuming probiotic-rich foods for IBS, chronic fatigue syndrome, joint pain, thyroid imbalances and weight loss, as well as for social anxiety disorder and depression.
Social anxiety disorder affects 10 million adults in the U.S., and over one-third of people suffer from this disorder for 10 or more years before seeking help.
Consuming probiotic-rich foods like kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi, natto, yogurt, apple cider vinegar, tempeh and more can help reduce anxiety in those suffering from social anxiety disorder.
Combining a diet rich with fermented foods and adequate exercise can help improve social anxiety disorder symptoms.
The gut and our brains are interconnected; it is possible that when we feel butterflies in our stomach that it is communicating with our brain to initiate a stress response.
Neurogastroenterology is an emerging field seeking to find the connection between the gut and our brains while exploring effective treatments for a wide range of diseases and disorders.
Researchers are starting to recognize and appreciate the mind-gut connection, and as further research emerges, new protocols for treatment can be expected.