The Best Fermented Foods For Your Brain, According to New Research

Time to stock up on the yogurt and kimchi!

Your brain and your stomach are fairly far apart in terms of your body's real estate, true. But the organs in our fascinating, complex bodies communicate in a wide variety of ways—and prove that the brain and belly really aren't that separate at all.

Pictured Recipe: Homemade Kimchi

We've already reported on the 6 foods you should be eating every day for better brain health, which mainly highlight antioxidant-rich ingredients like blueberries, walnuts and leafy greens. Preliminary results from a new study suggest that we might want to add a seventh to this list: fermented foods.

Read on to learn more about the early results from this brain health research, plus we're dishing about the top two categories of fermented foods that may help support your sharpness and reduce stress levels.

What This Brain Health Study Found (So Far)

We've long been proponents of fermented foods to support gut health, and more recently have science to thank for cluing us in that gut health can help (or hurt) mood. In addition to good bacteria called probiotics, fermented foods are stoked with protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Just like the brain, the gut has a nervous system of its own, and what we eat can significantly impact the levels of certain hormones and neurotransmitters within the body. For instance, fermented foods are a source of tryptophan (just like that Thanksgiving turkey that's often blamed for the post-meal nap…most likely, this drowsy feeling just has to do with blood flow within the body, per John Hopkins medical experts). Tryptophan is an amino acid that's integral in the production of serotonin, a chemical messenger (AKA neurotransmitter) that influences a variety of brain functions, including mood. Some fermented foods also contain other neurotransmitters.

With this in mind, and taking note of earlier peer-reviewed scientific studies that link increased fermented food consumption with lower risk for anxiety and depression and stress, this research team set out to try to hone in on which fermented foods might benefit our brains the most.

Ph.D. candidate Ramya Balasubramanian and her team at APC Microbiome, University College Cork and Teagasc (Ireland's Agriculture and Food Development Authority) in Moorepark, Cork, Ireland analyzed the data from 200 fermented foods from all over the world. While the research is still ongoing, Balasubramanian has a very promising preview for all of us who are fans of kraut, kimchi, kombucha, yogurt, miso, kefir and other fermented foods.

"I expected only a few fermented foods would show up, but out of 200 fermented foods, almost all of them showed the ability to exert some sort of potential to improve gut and brain health," she says in a press release shared by the Microbiology Society (which is poised to host an annual conference where she will share more about her research).

homeade kimchi

Two categories of fermented foods in particular appear to have sizable positive forces on the brain: "Fermented sugar-based products and fermented vegetable-based products are like winning the lottery when it comes to gut and brain health," Balasubramanian adds.

You're probably familiar with several fermented vegetable products already, such as naturally-fermented pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi.

But what about those sugars? According to ScienceDirect, during microbial fermentation, the polysaccharides in foods are transformed into fermentable sugars, including glucose (from cellulose), xylose, arabinose, galactose and mannose.

"For all that we see on sugar-based products being demonized, fermented sugar takes the raw sugar substrate and it converts it into a plethora of metabolites that can have a beneficial effect," Balasubramanian continues. "So even though it has the name 'sugar' in it, if you do a final metabolomic screen [in other words, a molecular study], the sugar gets used by the microbial community that's present in the food, and they get converted into these beautiful metabolites that are ready to be cherry-picked by us for further studies."

This means that any fermented food that contains some source of sugar—say, the lactose in milk that turns into yogurt—may be a boon for the brain.

The Bottom Line

Early results from a new study hint at the fact that all fermented foods can help support brain health (in addition to gut health and overall well-being). It's too early to make a final verdict about which of your fermented faves are the best Rx, but Balasubramanian and her team plan to forge ahead to hopefully come to more formal conclusions, and to rank the fermented foods based on how much of an impact they have on brain health and mood.

As we continue to learn more, it certainly can't hurt to fill your plate with more probiotic-rich recipes. Doing so is very likely to please your taste buds, gut health and brain all at once.

Up Next: How Much Fermented Foods You Should Eat When Taking Antibiotics

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