Great News! Fermented Foods Can Flatten Depression

kimchi, miso, tempeh? Fermented foods make your brain and your tummy happy.

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Not only are yogurt and kimchi healthy and delicious, but they can also help prevent depression. Professor Vishton explains.

Blueberries in yogurt
In addition to regular exercise, eating fermented foods can reduce mild depression, although it is a bit of a mystery as to why. Photo By TanyaJoy / Shutterstock

What Are Fermented Foods?

Some recent studies have linked depression with inflammation. Along these lines, taking aspirin may help to reduce depression. Additionally, to boost your mood when you are feeling low, Professor Vishton recommends adding fermented foods to your diet.

“To be clear, I’m not talking about alcoholic beverages here,” Professor Vishton said. 

Fermentation is used in the production of many foods. In general, it involves exposing foods to a family of bacteria called lactobacilli. 

These helpful, friendly bacteria eat the starches and sugars in food and convert them into lactic acids—a sour-tasting substance. Kimchi and sauerkraut are common examples, as is yogurt. 

Other fermented foods include sourdough bread, tempeh, and miso—the central ingredient in miso soup. You can find a wide range of fermented foods at a typical grocery store. A quick search online will give you a wide range of options, some of which—hopefully many of which—you are likely to actually enjoy.

Fermentation Fights Depression

A growing body of evidence suggests that the incidence of depression is lower in people who regularly consume fermented foods. The exact mechanisms for this are still a bit of a mystery, but data implies that the effect is real. 

As with the aspirin, however, that data seems to suggest that the effects are much larger for some people than for others. Will fermented foods work for you to alleviate depression? You will have to be the scientist to answer that question.

Another science-backed method for reducing depression is to exercise. Numerous studies have found that exercise can be just as effective when it comes to enhancing serotonin and the production of other feel-good neurotransmitters as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) drugs.

“If you feel mild depression on a regular basis, I hope you will consider trying these techniques to help get your mood regulation systems back in order,” Professor Vishton said. “There are many reasons to regularly exercise and eat delicious fermented foods. Even if we don’t know exactly why they have a positive effect on mood, those potential benefits are there. And if drinking a delicious yogurt smoothie turns out to be good for my brain too, so be it.”

Prevalence of Depression

If your depression becomes severe or persists for more than a few weeks, though, Professor Vishton recommends that you seek professional treatment. 

‘Too many people suffer with depression—in some cases for years, or decades—depression that could be very effectively treated,” Professor Vishton said.

We know a lot about what happens in the brain when depression strikes, and a lot about how to correct it. There is no shame in needing that help. 

Depression is more common than you probably think. In 2014, a survey from the National Institutes of Health reported that almost 16 million American adults—around seven percent of the total adult population—reported at least one major depressive episode.

As with the common cold, we all feel bad from time to time. Unlike the common cold, though, taking steps to combat depression can do a lot to shorten how long it lasts.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

About Kate Findley 450 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.