Plant-based diets have caught on in a big way over the past decade, leading more and more people to investigate the virtues of vegetarian and vegan regimens for themselves.
Adherents report higher levels of happiness, energy, and general well-being compared to their carnivorous counterparts. Some have even gone so far as to claim that prioritizing whole foods rich in essential nutrients has cured—or at least significantly reduced the severity of—various mental health ailments, including depression and anxiety.
Is there some truth to what they’re saying, or is plant-based eating yet another dietary fad destined to fade into obscurity?
How a Plant-Based Diet Benefits Mental Health
Most people are aware by now that eating right has demonstrable health benefits. What they may not realize is that choosing the right foods also has mental health benefits.
As it turns out, there’s a crucial link between the things you consume and the quality and quantity of the mood-regulating chemicals your brain produces. This link is so firm and so influential in terms of overall wellness that many food researchers, nutritionists, and advocates of healthy eating have begun referring to the gut as the “second brain.”
It all comes down to a specific class of chemicals known as neurotransmitters.
Understanding the Role of Neurotransmitters
Neurotransmitters are specialized molecules that carry signals from the brain to the body and vice versa. They’re directly responsible for all of the body’s most crucial goings-on, from managing organ function to regulating conscious behaviors like concentration.
There are over 100 individual neurotransmitters, most of which govern involuntary physical processes like sleep, metabolism, and hormone production. One neurotransmitter in particular, however, is strongly associated with mental health: serotonin.
Among its other duties, serotonin gives rise to perceptions of motivation, reward, and satisfaction. Likewise, it informs aspects of our behavior that we collectively think of as “personality traits,” including our moods and the color and cast of our thoughts and feelings.
One especially noteworthy characteristic of serotonin in the context of nutrition is that our bodies might end up with more or less of it to draw on depending on the foods we eat.
How is that possible? Because serotonin originates in the digestive system, manufactured as a derivative of the amino acid tryptophan.
The Tryptophan Connection
Research suggests that eating foods that help serotonin levels serve to bring about feelings of joy, contentment, enthusiasm, and satisfaction. That leads us to the obvious question: what foods have serotonin?
This line of thinking is somewhat misleading. In reality, there are no foods that contain serotonin itself. Since serotonin is a byproduct of tryptophan, though, upping your intake of foods high in tryptophan may help set you on the path to enhanced mental health.
You might be vaguely aware of tryptophan as the stuff in turkey that makes your uncle nod off after Thanksgiving dinner, but there are actually many different natural sources of tryptophan and foods high in tryptophan that are vegan.
Examples of high-tryptophan foods to boost serotonin include:
-Seeds and nuts
-Tofu, tempeh, and other soy products
Plant-based, high-tryptophan foods like the ones listed above not only provide the raw materials used to make serotonin but also help deliver it across the blood-brain barrier, thanks to the complex carbohydrates they contain. This in turn makes them available for use in producing feel-good states and positive emotional reactions.
Inflammation: The Dark Side of Animal Protein
So far, none of the evidence presented points to plant-based diets as being inherently superior to those that include animal products. But that’s only because we haven’t factored in the lurking threat that is inflammation.
Though it’s developed something of a bad reputation in recent years, inflammation is a natural (and altogether desirable) phenomenon. More precisely, it’s a vital immune response, one of the body’s ways of healing injuries and fending off foreign invaders like germs.
In modest doses, inflammation is a good thing. It’s only when it reaches chronic status that it becomes a problem.
Unfortunately, diet-related inflammation is already a serious problem for billions of people.
Numerous in-depth studies have made the convincing argument that items like meat, cheese, and dairy have a way of triggering or exacerbating inflammation. The quality of these foods is also a concern—the more processed they are, the worse inflammation tends to get. That’s why you want to look for foods that increase norepinephrine and plant sources of tryptophan when switching to a plant-based diet for anxiety and other conditions.
Plant-Based Diets and Depression
Depression is a particularly widespread and worrisome mental illness, affecting some 17 million people (close to 7% of all adults) in the U.S. alone.
Through rigorous testing and observation, scientists have succeeded in drawing a well-defined line between depression and chronic inflammation—one of the leading causes of which, as mentioned, is regular consumption of animal products.
It’s therefore a reasonable enough hypothesis that drastically reducing or eliminating animal proteins may also help reduce or eliminate the ill effects of chronic inflammation. More research is needed to bear out this conclusion, but the notion that by committing to a plant-based diet anxiety and depression might simply sort themselves out is certainly an exciting one.
Even if you’re not ready to give up meat altogether, there are all sorts of reasons to think about making room for more fresh, organic fare and natural sources of serotonin.
For instance, eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains has been shown to:
-Aid in weight loss
-Lower blood pressure
-Stabilize blood sugar levels
-Decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke
-Minimize the threat of certain types of cancer
Regardless of your tastes, these sorts of outcomes are cause for celebration.
With so much compelling evidence piling up, the idea that switching to a predominantly herbivorous diet can have a positive impact on mental health is no longer as outlandish as it might have once seemed. The positive connection between a plant-based diet and mental health is one of the many reasons people are switching up their eating habits.