During the month of May, mental health awareness is on the page of every newsfeed on the Internet and in the newspapers, but it’s a topic that really needs to be discussed year-round. And the connection between diet and mental health is an important part of this conversation. Read on to learn how you can improve your gut and your brain with plant-based nutrition.
Bill and I have worked with clients and students for decades who have suffered from many aspects of mental health. Their suffering could have been the result of losing a loved one; a diagnosis of some terminal illness; the loss of their home, job; or any other multitude of things that humans are challenged with daily. Of course, I am not suggesting that when a tragedy happens in your life plants can wave a magic wand and heal your pain, but connecting the gut/brain to clinical depression/mental health is something that we are both hugely passionate about teaching.
The Gut-Brain Connection
When you consider the fact that the gut-brain connection is recognised as a basic tenet of physiology and medicine, and that there’s no shortage of evidence of gastrointestinal involvement in a variety of neurological diseases, it’s easy to see how the balance of gut bacteria can play a significant role in your psychology and behaviour, as well. With this in mind, it should also be crystal clear that nourishing your gut flora is extremely important, from cradle to grave, because in a very real sense you have two brains, one inside your skull and one in your gut, and each needs its own vital nourishment.
Interestingly, these two organs are actually created out of the same type of tissue. This is why your intestinal health can have such a profound influence on your mental health, and vice versa. As a single system, the gut and brain are working together to keep your body functions operating at peak condition. There are aspects of each – duplicated chemicals, cells, and tissues – in the other. They use the same methods and nerves to communicate. In fact, your “second brain” has all the same neurotransmitters and just as many neurons as the spinal cord or peripheral nerves. Almost 95% of your body’s serotonin is located in your gut! Is it any wonder that it affects our moods, actions, and performance?
Depression affects more than 150 million people worldwide, making it a leading cause of losing healthy years of life as a result of disability. In fact, by 2020, depression may be the second leading cause for loss of healthy life in later years, second only to heart disease. Why is depression so common? Aside from the foregoing, diet plays a huge role in mental health once we learn that our gut is, in fact, our second brain.
Dr. Michael Greger explains that the relationship between mental health and inflammation was first noted in 1887, for which the only psychiatrist to ever win the award got a Nobel Prize. But what evidence have we accumulated in the century since then that inflammation causes clinical depression and mental health problems?
The modern diet is massively pro-inflammatory. Every client who comes to us for health counselling has a hotbed of inflammation in their colon. Literally, if your gut is “on fire,” your entire body is under attack and heading for many diseases.
The most anti-inflammatory diet is a plant-based diet, which can cut C-reactive protein levels by 30% within two weeks, perhaps because of the anti-inflammatory properties of antioxidants. And, so, clinical depression can be accompanied by increased oxidative stress and the autoimmune inflammatory responses it creates. Using data from two large studies, Danish researchers have found that higher blood levels of C-reactive protein, or CRP, are associated with a greater risk of psychological stress and clinical depression. But by eliminating animal products, which cause a burst of inflammation (to the already depressed person) and by eating antioxidant-rich diets, you can achieve amazing results in mental health.
Going vegan has multiple proven benefits. An exclusively plant-based diet is naturally higher in fibre and boosts bacteria that make short-chain fatty acids. These SCFAs improve immunity against pathogens, provide an energy source for our gut lining, maintain the blood-brain barrier, activate critical intestinal protection mechanisms, and help control our blood sugar and caloric intake.
Fermented Foods are the Best Route to Optimal Digestive Health
Fermented foods have been traditional staples in most cultures, but modern food manufacturing, with its focus on killing ALL bacteria in the name of food safety, has eliminated most of these foods. You can find traditionally fermented foods like miso soup to feed your gut biome. When clients taste my “miso broth” and fermented vegetables, their eyes light up. Miso soup should be a daily staple. Happy bugs = happy me.
In good health,