Are Fermented Foods the Key to Happiness?

Whether it is with a salad or any other dish that I am making at home, organic fermented foods – usually sauerkraut (above) or kimchee – can almost always be found on my plate. Why is this?

I have come to understand that if we want to have a strong immune system, we must take care of our gut and provide it with beneficial bacteria.

And that is exactly what fermented foods give us – beneficial bacteria.

Dr. Natascha Campbell-McBride, a Russian neurologist and founder of the GAPS Diet, says that:

“about 85% of our immune system is located in the gut wall. This fact has been established by basic physiology research in the 1930s and the 1940s. Your gut, your digestive wall, is the biggest and the most important immune organ in your body. There is a very tight conversation and a relationship going on between the gut flora that lives inside your digestive system and your immune system.

Your gut flora—the state of the gut flora and the composition of microbes in your gut flora—has a profound effect on what forms of immune cells you will be producing on any given day, what they’re going to be doing, and how balanced your immune system is.”

Dr. McBride also believes that an imbalanced gut will result in a host of physical and emotional disorders, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, asthma, skin problems, digestive issues, and autoimmune disorders. And this doesn’t even begin to mention all of the health problems that many children face such as autism, ADD, and allergies.

An imbalanced gut also leads to depression, and this has particular relevance to me.

When I was at Natural Products Expo West earlier this year, I had a very interesting conversation with Donna Gates, author and leading health expert.

I went on to tell her about my history with antidepressants and depression (I took Prozac for almost 11 years and struggled with serious bouts of depression after going off of the drug in 2001), and she informed me that 90% of our serotonin is produced in the gut.

So, if we want to produce high amounts of serotonin, one of the key neurotransmitters responsible for happiness, we must have plenty of beneficial bacteria.

For me, that is reason enough to make sure I have a steady flow of organic fermented foods –  sauerkraut, kimchee, beet kvass, kefir, cultured vegetables – in my diet.


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  • margaret says:

    Hi Max,

    I believe the link between happiness and fermented (pickled foods) to be real. As I recently started eating a lot.

    I constantly have picked chillies, various vegetables, eggs, gerkins and also olives (although not really pickled). My happiness levels have reason significantly to the point that I find myself constantly smiling.

    This lead me to look up my gut feeling that pickled foods make you happy.

    I also have to add I have recently become 95% octo vegetarian. Most of the time full vegan but I admit I like eggs for binding and I am not really good at getting natural b12.

  • OTowner says:

    So, did including more fermented foods have a significant impact on your depression?

    • Max Goldberg says:

      @Otowner – I didn’t know about fermented foods at the time but I eat a ton of them now. I eat sauerkraut on an almost daily basis. Gut health is so inextricably linked to mood.

      Live well,

  • Bob Cooney says:

    Hi Max,

    I just went back and read the comments I see that you did mention 1 regional brand.
    Any thoughts salt?

    In reading the comments I saw one posted by Kem Minnick on June 21, 2014 @ 9:20 pm.
    She says some interesting things.
    I became a vegan after a bypass. Kim mentions to feel better to combat depression ( which I take meds for) eat meat? She also mentioned that “Because humans can only absorb heme iron and iron is essential for serotonin production”.

    I know you are a vegan and you mention your battles with depression. Any thoughts on what Kim wrote?

    Thank you Max.

  • Bob Cooney says:

    Thanks Max,

    Great article – thanks for reposting it.

    Please tell me do you make your own fermented foods or do you buy an organic brand at the store?
    I would like to make my own because the pre made seem to have quite a bit of salt in them. Any thoughts on that?
    Do you have any recipes?

    Thank you.

  • Laurie says:

    Loved the article. You didn’t mention anything about kombucha. Do you have any experience with that? I’ve been making it for a while, along with fermented vegetables, and I love kimchee! I had to go off of all fermented food for a few months as I was detoxing from mold, but I did take a high quality probiotic while I was off. I’m about to start up again, and would like to know your thoughts on kombucha.
    Thank you!

  • Kem Minnick says:

    Great article but…here are some serotonin facts: Serotonin is produced from one dietary substance only, the essential amino acid tryptophan. There are 2 forms of serotonin: blood serotonin and brain serotonin. Tryptophan is found in greatest quantities in animal proteins. Blood serotonin is produced in the intestines and the stomach from the food we eat, chicken, fish, eggs, shellfish, dairy, red meat and pork. In order for dietary tryptophan to produce serotonin, all 8 B vitamins ( 7 are found in greatest and complete quantities in animal proteins) must be present as well as Vit C, magnesium, zinc, folic acid and iron. The food that contains all of these nutrients is red meat, not cabbage, bananas or spirulina. Why? Because humans can only absorb heme iron and iron is essential for serotonin production. Plant proteins and grains contain non-heme iron only which humans cannot absorb only animals such as pigs, cows, sheep and goats along with wild game and wild fish can absorb non-heme iron. Red meat, dairy and other meats like chicken and fish are the best sources for tryptophan as well as all of the other essential amino acids. Red meat has all of the nutrients necessary for serotonin formation other than folic acid, the 8th B vitamin found in greatest quantities in leafy greens. Vit c and magnesium are the remaining serotonin ingredients again found i fruits and vegetables. In order for blood serotonin to be transported to the brain and turned into brain serotonin, carbohydrates such as bread, potatoes and pasta must be eaten. A carbohydrate is biochemically defined as anything that turns to glucose in the stomach. Fruits and vegetables are not carbohydrates as they do not turn to glucose in the stomach, basic nutritional science here. Kefir and yogurt as well as organic cottage cheese and sour cream provide the human body with necessary beneficial bacteria and have done so for 1000’s of years. Pickles and other fermented foods taste delicious but if you want to kick depression, a diet rich in high quality animal proteins, organic starchy cooked grains, fresh organic fruits and organic vegetables are your best and most biochemically valid bet. Serotonin tip? Alcohol depletes B vitamins, iron and tryptophan so is the worst dietary culprit when it comes to tryptophan and serotonin depletion. Eat meat and be happy and healthy. Don’t drink alcohol if you are depressed!

  • Michelle says:


    Strange question, but do you start by cleaning out the gut, is there a way? Or do the fermented foods, after eating them for awhile take care of this?

  • RL says:

    Great article! What are your favorite fermented kimchi / sauerkraut / other to buy ? I can’t seem to brave making it myself and am looking for some good products/brands to have at home. (NY area) Thanks ! Have a happy and fermented day!

    • Max Goldberg says:

      Hi Rebecca,

      In NYC, I really like Hawthorne Valley. These fermented foods, however, are very regional – different brands in different parts of the country.

      Live well,

  • Sarah says:

    I have a really hard time eating fermented foods because I have an extremely (unfortunate) heightened sense of taste and smell and they tend to make me gag. Can I get the same benefits out of taking expensive acidopholus? I keep seeing different opinions on this.

  • wow really fascinating i think fermented foods count as probiotics yes? perhaps more people should focus on the fermented vegetables and roots (sauerkraut, kimchee, etc) instead of the “American diet” recommends of dairy products, i cannot tolerate dairy at all unless i consume it maybe once a month, so i get my probiotics from sauekraut and this drink kevita (though i dont know much about kevita) well anyway my point it more people should have awareness about probiotics and fermented foods, what about kombucha? i used to drink synergy but am going to avoid the “flavored” ones and focus on the raw/normal form. maybe you should do an article on your on experiences with fermented food incase you havent already because i think there is a “fear” or fermented food in the way its made and look, but i think it is really beneficial when made right and organically obtained

    • Max Goldberg says:

      Hi Cristina,

      I, too, am a huge fan of fermented foods because of the beneficial bacteria and their popularity is only increasing. Thanks for sharing.

      Live well,

  • Keith says:

    this is a new area for me to study … I think it holds a promise of improved health :)

  • Angelique Matthews says:

    Great article. So true. I just wish doctors knew this information. Perhaps they would not prescribe as many anti-depressants and would prescrible pro-biotic rich foods instead.

    • Max Goldberg says:

      Hi Angelique,

      Thanks for your kind words, and I couldn’t agree with you more. Doctors need to look at diet as a cause of depression, instead of just treating it with pills.

      However, the best approach is to empower people with this information so they never have to go see the doctor in the first place.

      Live well,

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