Fermented Foods: The Secret to a Happy Gut and a Sharp Mind?

Fermented Foods

What you eat has an impact on all aspects of health and well-being, including brain health.  Previous research shows that certain foods help support brain health while eating ultra-processed foods may have the opposite effect.  You might already know that fruits and vegetables omega-3-rich foods, like fatty fish, offer brain health benefits. But what about fermented foods, one of the best sources of gut-friendly probiotics?  Fermented foods are also a rich source of tryptophan, an amino acid that plays a key role in the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that influences mood and cognition.

Studies reveal that adding fermented foods to your diet can positively affect brain health, both through their effects on mental health and cognitive function. But with so many fermented foods out there, it can be hard to know which ones have the greatest impact. Which ones are best? There’s an ongoing study being conducted by researchers at APC Microbiome, University College Cork, and Teagasc.

Which Fermented Foods Are Best for Brain Health?

The team behind the study analyzed sequencing data from over 200 fermented foods from different parts of the globe. They were on the hunt for metabolites beneficial for brain health and cognition. And guess what? The results are already surprising to researchers! Here’s a quote from one of the researchers:

“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,” says Ramya Balasubramanian, a researcher on the team.

According to Ramya, the top fermented foods for gut and brain health are those that are sugar-based or vegetable-based. Think fresh sauerkraut!  Despite the negative perception of sugar-based products, fermented sugar takes the raw sugar substrate and converts it into a range of metabolites that can have a beneficial effect on brain health and health as a whole. Plus, fermented foods are an excellent source of gut-friendly probiotics.

The researchers plan on subjecting other fermented foods to testing using an artificial colon and various animal models to understand how these metabolites affect cognitive function. Ramya hopes that these preliminary results will encourage people to consider incorporating fermented foods into their diet as a natural way of supporting their mental health and overall well-being.

Fermented Foods Contain Components That Benefits Mental Health

Food is not only rich in nutrients, but it contains other components that have bioactive properties, including some that support mental health and well-being. For example, certain fermented foods from East Asian countries such as Japan and Korea contain high levels of a metabolite called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This compound has been linked to reducing anxiety and improving mood.

GABA is a neurotransmitter that regulates brain activity and has a calming effect on the nervous system. Studies have shown that consuming GABA-rich foods, such as fermented soybeans, fermented tea, and fermented vegetables, may help to alleviate anxiety and stress. In addition to its mood-boosting benefits, GABA has also been found to have other health benefits, such as improving sleep quality and reducing blood pressure. It’s an example of how food contains properties that go beyond supplying energy and nutrients.

The Gut and Brain Interact in Surprising Ways

Your gut and brain are closely linked through the vagus nerve. So, the health of our gut can have a significant impact on our mental health and vice versa. Research shows that imbalances in the gut microbiome can lead to anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders. Similarly, stress and anxiety can cause inflammation in the gut and disrupt the balance of bacteria, leading to digestive issues.

Fermented foods can be beneficial for mental health because they contain beneficial bacteria that can help to support the gut-brain axis, which is the communication system between the gut and the brain. Some of the best fermented foods for mental health include:

Yogurt: Yogurt contains live and active cultures of beneficial bacteria, including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, which can help to support gut health and improve mood.

Kefir: Kefir is a fermented milk drink that is like yogurt but contains a wider range of beneficial bacteria and yeast. It has been shown to improve gut health and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Kimchi: Kimchi is a traditional Korean fermented vegetable dish that contains a variety of beneficial bacteria, including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. It has been shown to improve gut health and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Sauerkraut: Sauerkraut is a fermented cabbage dish that is rich in beneficial bacteria, including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. It has been shown to improve gut health and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Kombucha: Kombucha is a fermented tea drink that is rich in beneficial bacteria and yeast. It has been shown to improve gut health and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.


Fermented foods are a valuable source of tryptophan and other brain messengers, which can have a positive impact on brain function. The ongoing research by the team at APC Microbiome, University College Cork, and Teagasc aims to determine the fermented foods that have the greatest effect on brain health.

While we await the results, incorporating fermented foods into our diet is a natural way to support mental health and well-being. When you consume fermented foods, you’re doing something beneficial for your gut but also your brain. Plus, many fermented foods are also rich in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that are essential for overall health. So next time you’re looking for a healthy snack or side dish, why not try adding some kimchi, sauerkraut, or kefir to your plate?


  • Microbiology Society. “Kombucha to kimchi: Which fermented foods are best for your brain?.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 April 2023. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/04/230413154458.htm>.
  • “Can Probiotics Improve Your Mood? | Johns Hopkins Medicine.” hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/can-probiotics-improve-your-mood.
  • “Health Benefits of Yogurt: Nutrition, Protein, and Probiotics.” 10 Mar. 2023, www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-yogurt.
  • Selhub EM, Logan AC, Bested AC. Fermented foods, microbiota, and mental health: ancient practice meets nutritional psychiatry. J Physiol Anthropol. 2014 Jan 15;33(1):2. doi: 10.1186/1880-6805-33-2. PMID: 24422720; PMCID: PMC3904694.

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