OPINION: Fermented foods may improve America’s mental health problem

Emma Sheeran, Opinion Editor

The U.S. is plagued with mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and panic disorders. In fact, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. suffer with mental illnesses like these each year.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults yearly. Despite this staggering statistic, only 36.9% of those suffering with anxiety receive treatment.

Many people would be surprised to discover that diet directly correlates with mental health.

In fact, the medical field of nutritional psychiatry is dedicated to treating mental health conditions with nutrition. Fermented foods have been a hot topic in the nutritional psychiatry field recently.

In the past few years, fermented foods have taken the U.S. by storm. Many people have flocked to this category of food due to its attractive health benefits which include antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties.

However, fermented foods not only enhance physical health but also have a tremendous impact on mental health. Ingesting fermented foods have a direct impact on gut health, which result in improved mental health conditions.

Serotonin is a well-known neurotransmitter that regulates mood, happiness and anxiety. Low levels of serotonin frequently result in depression and anxiety disorders. While serotonin is a brain chemical, 90% of the body’s serotonin originates in the digestive tract, according to the California Institute of Technology.

Studies have shown that the microbes and probiotics in fermented foods promote optimal gut health, therefore resulting in healthy levels of serotonin. Fermented foods must be added to diets nationwide to encourage strong mental health. This is especially necessary during these stress-ridden and unprecedented times.

Fermented foods have the potential to make America a much healthier nation, both physically and mentally. It’s crucial that all generations welcome these foods into their diets in order to reap the myriad of benefits.

Fermented foods have recently gained widespread popularity particularly among millennial and Gen Z consumers. A survey conducted on these consumers found that 49% of them like to “experiment with new and unusual flavors.”

According to data gathered by Upserve, the consumption of fermented foods in the U.S. increased 149% in 2018. It’s great news for fermented foods to be a trending item now as mental health in the U.S. continues to worsen.

More people need to realize that the foods they choose have a direct impact on their mental health. Those who eat a diet high in processed foods may experience worsening mental illness due to the poor dietary choices. According to an article by Harvard Health Publishing, diets high in refined sugars result in worsened symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression.

Pickles are typically the first thing people think of when they hear about fermented foods. However, there is a plethora of other fermented items including baked goods, dairy products, fruits and vegetables.

Kombucha is a popular fermented tea made with a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, aka SCOBY. After the SCOBY is added to the tea, the mixture is left to ferment for a specific amount of time. Depending on the fermentation duration, the resulting kombucha could vary in flavor from sweet to tangy and vinegary.

Fermenting tanks at “Kane Brewing Company” in Ocean Township Monday, July 29, 2019. (Thomas P. Costello)

Kimchi is another fermented food which is made from cabbage, salt and water. You can find many varieties of kimchi ranging from sweet to spicy. Since kimchi is a fermented item, it is self-preserving for up to 3 years. Kimchi is an extremely healthy addition to anyone’s diet. It is filled with nutrients, phytochemicals and healthy bacteria.

If you don’t like the taste of kombucha or kimchi, sourdough may be a great option. Sourdough bread is a baked item made with an aged starter. The sourdough starter is a fermented culture made of water, flour and naturally occurring yeast and enzymes. Studies have shown that the prebiotics in sourdough improve gut health and  result in better digestion.

Give fermented foods a space on your dinner plate and welcome the myriad of physical and mental health benefits that they possess.