by Patricia Campana, LMFT, R-DMT, MVLCE
posted March 16, 2021
What if we could improve our mood, reduce anxiety, irritability, or depression by the foods we eat? We can, by incorporating a whole food plant-based diet and eliminating animal products. There is a relationship between mental well-being and diet.
Several studies attempted to find the correlation between diet and mental health issues. They concluded that there is a connection between diet and mental health. Plant-based foods are rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that help regulate oxidative stress and cognitive responses. Exclusion of all forms of animal products from your diet can have a positive impact on your mental health, providing proper nutrient levels are achieved, and perhaps with the inclusion of vegan supplements to help improve your mood.
Some nutrients linked to mental health are available exclusively or predominantly in animal products and lacking in a plant-based diet, so it is important to supplement these to improve mental health. Let’s look first at vitamin B12, the fully formed Omega-3 fatty acids, and certain amino acids. Deficiencies in these, as well as folate (although this is nutrient is found abundantly in the plant kingdom), have been linked to depression, poor mood regulation, poor metabolism, low energy, memory and attention difficulties. Research shows that anger, hostility, and irritability are symptoms seen in depression and anxiety, and that a whole food plant-based diet can reduce these symptoms.
Anxiety, depression, and mood disorders can be caused by numerous factors such as stress and hormones, but B12 is responsible for regulating mood-controlling chemicals such as serotonin. B12 protects nerves and red blood cells and promotes brain health. Insufficient B12 reduces production of these chemicals, which can lead to mood disorders. Low B12 can also lead to forgetfulness and confusion. If you eat a vegan diet, it is important to consume B12-fortified foods, such as soy products, cereals, nutritional yeast, and plant-based milk, always checking labels because some manufacturers add vitamin B12 to these products and others do not.
The absence of Omega-3 fatty acids can lead to a decrease in DHA in the brain, resulting in learning and memory issues. Plant-based sources of Omega-3 fatty acids include flaxseed, and walnuts, as well as soy and hemp beverages.
Protein intake can have an impact on brain and mental health as well. Dopamine is made from the amino acid tyrosine. Serotonin is made from amino acid tryptophan. Shortage of these amino acids results in low mood and aggression. Beans, peas, and grains are all high in tyrosine and tryptophan.
Depressive symptoms are also common with folate deficiency, alluded to above. Sources of folate include dark leafy greens (“folate” has the same root as “foliage”), asparagus, citrus fruits, and avocado.
In addition, optimal vitamin D levels have been shown to increase cognitive functioning. The “sunshine vitamin” may be difficult to get from activity of sun on the skin, so get your levels checked and supplement if needed; 1000 IU per day is considered a safe level, and sometimes physicians prescribe more, at least in the short term, to turn around a deficiency.
The trace mineral, zinc, is also important for mental function. While it is found in plant foods — pumpkin seeds have quite a bit — it may be difficult for vegans to get an optimal amount without supplementation.
A well-balanced vegan diet is a gift to your brain, as well as to the rest of your body. However, nutritional deficiencies that may cause mental health problems can occur in any eating pattern. Eliminating animal products from the diet and replacing with vegan junk food and low-nutrient choices will lead to deficiencies that can have a negative impact on your mental and emotional state.
Patricia Campana is a December 2019 graduate of the Main Street Vegan Academy and Master Vegan Lifestyle Coach and Educator. She currently provides psychotherapy via teletherapy in a group private practice and is a licensed marriage family therapist in California and Arizona. Patricia is a registered dance movement and expressive arts therapist. She currently lives with her cats Sofia and Bella in San Diego, California. When not working, Patricia enjoys dance classes, church, the beach, surfing, and volunteering at a farm animal sanctuary.
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