Food for thought – A Plant-Based Diet for Mental Health

Food for thought – A Plant-Based Diet for Mental Health

2560 1707 Ania Wojtkowska

We all know that a lot of civilization diseases are caused by poor nutrition, but have you ever realized that there could be a link between what you eat and your mood? Multiple evidence shows that good nutrition is pivotal for mental health. Eating a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, seeds, and nuts, can aid treat and protect against many mental health concerns, including depression, stress, dementia, and anxiety.

Recently veganism became mainstream, and many believe it creates a healthier lifestyle. However, veganism, like any other diet, can be healthy and unhealthy depending on what you eat and how you cook it. There is also a common confusion between vegan and plant-based diets. Vegan diets eliminate all animal products, while plant-based diets do not necessarily eliminate every animal product. Instead, they focus on eating mostly plants, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.

The “whole-food” part of “a whole-food plant-based diet” has become increasingly relevant. As highly processed vegan foods have become more widely available, it is possible to eat a vegan diet while eating very few whole plant foods. Simultaneously, for marketing purposes, many manufacturers have begun labeling these highly processed vegan foods as “plant-based.”

It has effectively made “plant-based” and “vegan” synonyms when it comes to food labeling. Veganism does not support mental health. However, a whole food plant-based diet with its abundance of fresh fruits and veggies can significantly improve your mood.

Gut-Brain Axis

Nutritional psychiatry focuses on the consequences and correlations between what you eat, how you feel, and how you ultimately behave with the kinds of bacteria that live in your gut. Imagine that your tummy and brain ‘secretly’ speak to each other – this conversation is called the gut-brain axis. 

Source: gutmicrobiotaforhealth

Communication between the gut and brain happens through 3 separate channels:

  • Through the nervous system
  • Through the immune system
  • Through hormones

This communication involves:

  1. The Vagus Nerve – Neurons in the intestines trigger reactions in your limbic system responsible for our emotions. This engagement is two-way. The limbic system can also send messages to our gut so often when we are stressed and have digestion problems.
  2. Neuroendocrine (gut hormone) signaling – Hormones produced in the gut are released into the bloodstream and directly affect our nervous system.
  3. Interference with our Tryptophan metabolism – Approximately 95% of our serotonin is produced in the gut. Serotonin is considered to help regulate mood, appetite, digestion, social behavior, sleep, memory, and sexual desire and function. There is a possible link between depression and serotonin.
  4. The Immune system – our gut constitutes about 70% of the immune system. It constitutes the main immune organ in the body—altered Intestinal Permeability. Chronic stress has been shown to influence intestinal permeability (leaky gut syndrome), connected with low-grade inflammation. It can lead to psychotic disorders such as depression. 

An unsettled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a miffed brain alarms the gut. Therefore, a person’s intestine or gut distress causes anxiety, depression, or stress., primarily because the gastrointestinal system and the brain are interconnected. As per the study, with gastrointestinal disorders, people have a higher rate of neuropsychiatric problems such as bipolar disorder and depression. And those with schizophrenia often complain from gastrointestinal inflammation. It is also noted that people who have autism spectrum disorder have a higher rate of gastrointestinal problems.

Diet alone can’t cure mental illness, but it can make other therapies work better. So what can we do to have constant communication between the brain and gut?

Psychobiotics might be an answer. Psychobiotics are live bacteria (probiotics and prebiotics) that affect our mental health and can be a great help to the gut-brain axis. Eating vegetables high in fiber, fermented foods, and of course, consuming probiotics and prebiotics will feed those gut-healthy bacteria. Probiotics and prebiotics are mostly found in fermented foods.

Depression and our diet: Depressive disorders are estimated to become the single biggest cause of disability worldwide by 2030. Depression is treated via different therapies and antidepressants, but what if we could overcome it with our breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There is no prescribed diet to treat depression, but changing eating habits like adding healthy food in your diet and eliminating processed food can help manage the symptoms.

Traditional diets from diverse countries (e.g., Norwegian, Mediterranean, and Japanese diets) show that healthy diet patterns are linked to lower depression rates. Diets higher in junk foods such as sugar-sweetened drinks, fried foods, refined flour products, processed snacks, and refined cereals have been linked to higher risks of depression in some studies. Whole nutrition matters more than its components because diet gives a symphony of effects. Reductionism is not helpful. The researchers concluded that one could manage or improve their symptoms of depression by altering their diet; we need to ensure that we consume enough vegetables, fruits, legumes, and grains.

How can meat and dairy diets affect our mood and the Mechanism behind the process?

When we eat food rich in arachidonic acid (a type of fat found only in animal products) – e.g., chicken, eggs, and other animal products, we are triggering the inflammation process. When an inflammation travels to the brain, it can lead to anxiety, stress, and depression. Therefore, such a situation must refrain from having food with high in arachidonic acid. It will aid in improving mental health and happier mind space.

Talking about depression, we should have two important substances in mind:

  • Omega 3 acid has proven to have anti-inflammatory properties. 
  • Tryptophan – Serotonin in the brain is produced by using amino acid tryptophan. Serotonin is largely responsible for mental well-being and feeling of happiness. The plant-based sources of tryptophan comprise seeds – sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, vegetables like leafy greens, watercress, soybeans, broccoli, peas, and mushrooms. On the contrary, meats such as turkey include amino acids and therefore find it hard to convert to serotonin. It is not wrong to conclude that a high-protein diet can lead to an amino acid in the bloodstream and difficult to enter the brain.

So What to add or remove from our Diet, to Fight the Blues?

There is no specific diet that directly supports our mental health. What is good for our hearts, it’s also good for our brains. A whole-food plant-based diet is ideal as it doesn’t cause any harm and can improve mental health and well-being. It can also offer our significant benefits to physical health. Weight loss can also lower depression risk. You can also try prolonged overnight fasting, like 12+ hours without any food intake, to reduce inflammation. Please note obesity and the inflammation, which comes with eating unhealthy diet, also contribute to the development of depression. 

Ensure there is enough intake of omega 3 acids in your diet, you can get it from plant sources: flax and chia seeds, walnuts, olives, soybeans, seaweed, and kidney beans, etc. Limit alcohol consumption (which in excess can reduce the health and diversity of microbiota). It’s crucial to include fiber in your diet, as it acts as a natural prebiotic. Meat, like all animal flesh, doesn’t contain any fiber. To boost your fiber intake, eat cold boiled potatoes, cold boiled rice, raw oats, apples (via pectin), leafy greens, wheat bran, ground flax seeds, chia seeds, lentils and legumes such as beans and chickpeas, sweet potatoes, cabbage, edible seaweed, berries, beetroot, broccoli, mushrooms, etc. 

Source: pexels

It’s also beneficial to include fermented fruit and vegetables, e.g., sauerkraut and kimchi, soy sauce, miso, natto, tempeh, yogurts, kefir, kombucha, sourdough bread, etc. To reduce the risk of inflammation and mental diseases, avoid processed foods including processed meats, additives, artificial sweeteners, emulsifiers (added to increase shelf life, taste, and consistency), sugar, and refined grains, e.g., white bread, white rice, biscuits, cake, etc.

To follow a healthier diet is not that difficult. It just needs a bit of research and determination. Try to opt for diet that you like, and this makes it much easier. Hopefully, you like some of the suggestions and few ideas on things to try.

Ania Wojtkowska

Originally from Poland, Ania has been living in Singapore for the past eight years. In 2017 she began her journey to developed and expand the awareness of healthy eating and plant-based diets. To promote her aims she launched her company - LivingveggiebyAnia. After Graduating from Cornell’s Plant-Based Nutrition by Dr. Colin Campbell and Winchester University (UK), she continued to live her dream of spreading the message that vegan food is not only healthy but tasty, easy to prepare, and can change the quality of our life.

All stories by:Ania Wojtkowska
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Ania Wojtkowska

Originally from Poland, Ania has been living in Singapore for the past eight years. In 2017 she began her journey to developed and expand the awareness of healthy eating and plant-based diets. To promote her aims she launched her company - LivingveggiebyAnia. After Graduating from Cornell’s Plant-Based Nutrition by Dr. Colin Campbell and Winchester University (UK), she continued to live her dream of spreading the message that vegan food is not only healthy but tasty, easy to prepare, and can change the quality of our life.

All stories by:Ania Wojtkowska