Six reasons your mental health improves when you eat whole plant foods

One of the many positive side effects of eating only whole plant foods is a noticeable improvement in mental wellbeing. It is common to hear people referring to a “lifting” or “lightness” when they describe their experience with switching to a wfpb diet. But it isn’t just anecdotal reports. Science, psychology and culture all play a part.

1. Arachidonic acid

Arachidonic acid is an omega-6 fatty acid found in largely in meat, fish and poultry and eggs which appears to have a negative effect on mental health through neuroinflammation. Studies have shown that mood is improved within 2 weeks of eliminating these foods from the diet.

2. Phytonutrients

One of the causes of depression may be some sort of chemical imbalance, specifically an excess of a substance called monoamine oxidase, which is an enzyme that breaks down neurotransmitters in the brain. These are the “feel-good” chemicals: serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Fruits and vegetables appear to contain sufficient levels of monoamine oxidase inhibitors to impact mood without the sometimes significant side effects of psychiatric drugs.

3. Microbiome

More and more research is being done into the enteric (intestinal) nervous system and the interactions between it and the brain. As everyone has experienced, stress can have a negative effect on gut function, but the effects are now being shown to go both ways. Four weeks of probiotic treatment was shown to improve mental states in rats and humans. The best way to have a healthy microbiome is to consume a diet that feeds beneficial microorganisms: a diet rich in whole plant foods.

4. Physical health

Being sick sucks. Let’s face it, it’s discouraging to feel fatigue and pain. It’s worse when there is no cure for what is wrong with you. None of the chronic diseases that plague the modern world have a medical cure. You might be able to slow the progress of your disease, or manage the symptoms to some extent, but even under the care of the best doctors, you will inevitably get worse as time goes on. This is considered normal, but if you stop and think about it, it’s downright depressing.

I was caught off-guard by the rapidity in improvement of my symptoms when I started eating a whole food plant based diet. Within 10 days I knew I was healing. My energy levels were up and my pain was down, and for the first time in many months the black cloud of being unwell lifted. Feeling good feels good.

5. Looking good

We’ve all been told that losing weight is difficult and that lasting weight loss is almost impossible without truckloads of willpower. I was well aware of my deficiencies in willpower so I never made any serious attempt to lose weight because I was afraid it would be an exercise in futility and perhaps even weight gain in the end. Imagine my delight to discover that I could actually lose weight in a healthy way without exercising an ounce of willpower. After years of simply accepting my body size and shape, I had the new experience of actually started to like it.

6. Living in line with values

From the time we are infants, we love animals. Some of our first words are animal sounds and we love animal stories and toys. Dogs and cats are treated as family members. We are appalled at stories of animal cruelty and consider those who perpetrate it to be deeply troubled. And yet we eat animals.

At some point as children we figure out that the chicken nugget we are eating is the same thing as the little red hen in the story. We figure out why the puppet is named Lambchop and why the piggie went to market. Many of us manage to stuff all that into the same drawer and never think much of it again. But we know that drawer is an untidy mess of logic and values.

Once you stop eating animals for any reason, you will realize that it is not necessary as you may have been led to believe. With that knowledge, you can unpack that messy drawer and discover the peace that comes from living in line with your values. Living in a way that respects the animals you love, the planet you live on and the only body you will ever have is deeply satisfying.

Please note: A wfpb diet is not a substitute for appropriate psychiatric, psychological or medical care for serious mental illness.

References:

Beezhold BL, Johnston CS. Restriction of meat, fish, and poultry in omnivores improves mood: a pilot randomized controlled trial.Nutr J. 2012 Feb 14;11:9. doi: 10.1186/1475-2891-11-9. PubMed PMID: 22333737; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3293760.

Dixon Clarke SE, Ramsay RR. Dietary inhibitors of monoamine oxidase A. J Neural Transm (Vienna). 2011 Jul;118(7):1031-41. doi: 10.1007/s00702-010-0537-x. Epub 2010 Dec 29. Review. PubMed PMID: 21190052.

Al Omran Y, Aziz Q. The brain-gut axis in health and disease. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2014;817:135-53. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4939-0897-4_6. Review. PubMed PMID: 24997032.

Mayer EA. Gut feelings: the emerging biology of gut-brain communication. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2011 Jul 13;12(8):453-66. doi: 10.1038/nrn3071. Review. PubMed PMID: 21750565; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3845678.

Prinsloo S, Lyle RR. The Microbiome, Gut-Brain-Axis, and Implications for Brain Health. NeuroRegulation. 2015;2(4):158-161. doi: 10.15540/nr.2.4.158. PubMed PMID: 28955721; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC5611854.

Messaoudi M, Lalonde R, Violle N, Javelot H, Desor D, Nejdi A, Bisson JF, Rougeot C, Pichelin M, Cazaubiel M, Cazaubiel JM. Assessment of psychotropic-like properties of a probiotic formulation (Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175) in rats and human subjects. Br J Nutr. 2011 Mar;105(5):755-64. doi: 10.1017/S0007114510004319. Epub 2010 Oct 26. PubMed PMID: 20974015.

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