Are fermented foods the secret to happiness?

Source: AP
Source: AP

Eating makes people happy. Scientifically speaking, certain foods can trigger the release of dopamine, a feel-good chemical that taps into the brain's pleasure center. Through a more social lens, food is celebratory, serving as a near-necessity to celebrate people and special occasions. While it's not always what's on the table that matters, there may be a secret to squeezing that extra bit of delicious joy out of your next meal: fermented foods. 

Fermentation, which you may remember from high school chemistry, is the process by which a carbohydrate (like sugar) is turned into an alcohol or acid. Used in beer, wine and liquor making, fermenting is also an ancient (and tasty) method of food preservation. 

Fermented foods contain probiotics, which are known to improve gut health and digestion, as well as help support a stronger immune system. Being healthy = being happy, right?

Yay!
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There's a specific detail about fermented foods that have lead certain pickle proponents to suggest the foods have a little more power than is scientifically proven. The culprit is serotonin. "The majority of serotonin, which is the key neurotransmitter responsible for 'happiness,' is produced in the gut," Anna Baker, CEO and founder of Nutrition Journey, said in an email. 

This can explain why so many people have attributed fermented foods to happiness, but there's a catch. While the majority of the body's serotonin is located in the gut, when the chemical is used inside the brain (for happiness), it must be produced inside the brain, too, Medical News Today wrote.

Still, many fermented foods are packed with beneficial nutrients like calcium, magnesium, biotin, vitamin K and vitamin B12, Baker said, and can do a body good. 

What fermented foods may improve is an individual's gut health, which is potentially good news for mood.  A 2015 study at the College of William & Mary linked gut health with mental health, finding that "young adults who eat more fermented foods have fewer social anxiety symptoms." While this isn't proof that fermented foods cause anxiety relief, it opens doors.

More research must be done before making the case that sauerkraut is the key to a stress-free life, but until then, there doesn't seem to be much harm in piling it on your hot dog. 

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Melissa Kravitz

Melissa Kravitz is a contributor for Mic. Her work has appeared on Thrillist, Mashable, Elite Daily, Time Out, Refinery29, Gothamist, Racked and more.

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