Can a Vegan Diet Fight Depression?
In a recent post on Forks Over Knives, Karl Hoppner shares his story of recovery from four years of clinical depression with a plant-based diet.
In his depression, Hoppner says he was sleeping a lot, working minimally, eating fast food and smoking marijuana. “Months would go by where I could not get myself out of bed, and my lifestyle habits were threatening my health. I tried many different approaches to dealing with my mental health, spending hours in talk therapy and taking many prescription medications. Nothing seemed to work.”
But a pivotal moment happened while listening to a Rich Roll interview on the Joe Rogan Experience. He says this podcast gave him a ‘ray of hope’ and that was the moment he decided to try a vegan diet and exercise for just four days. If it didn’t work after four days, he would quit.
But the increased intake of rice and veggies made him feel great immediately, and as he continued to eat plant-based foods and practice yoga, he felt increasingly well. Within a month he felt like his depression had disappeared completely. He was also waking up with more energy, was excited to ride his bike again, and is currently training for an Ironman triathlon. Hoppner writes, “The diet and lifestyle proposed by people like Rich Roll and documentaries like Forks Over Knives has literally saved my life.”
While this story is anecdotal, there is increasing evidence that demonstrate similar results: plants are powerful tools to help us fight both depression and anxiety.
The Physician’s Committee on Responsible Medicine’s Ulka Agarwal, M.D, explains that, “Depression is related to inflammation in the body and low levels of serotonin. Plant-based foods naturally lower inflammation in the body because they are naturally low in fat and high in antioxidants. High vegetable intake increases the amount of B vitamins in the diet, which have been found to affect mood.”
A study from 2013 showed that women who favored a high inflammatory diet (including high amounts of red meat and refined foods) were 41 percent more likely to be depressed. And finally, a recent study from the American Journal of Health Promotion showed that 36 participants self-reported reductions in anxiety, depression and fatigue, and improved their productivity both at work and outside of work when placed on a vegan diet.
One of the main reasons plant-based diets are helpful in fighting depression seems to be the connection between healthy gut bacteria and mental wellness. A plant-based diet can help improve gut bacteria by increasing the amount of healthy fiber and prebiotics in the diet. This improves the overall health of the intestines where hormones and vitamins are synthesized and produced. The connection between prebiotics and probiotics for gut health– and thus, mental health– is becoming increasingly clear. There is a lot of exciting new research being conducted about the human microbiome and how it relates to wellness.
Other ways to help boost your mental health naturally is to ensure you’re eating the right kinds of food. The Vegan RD notes that a happy, healthy vegan diet includes supplements, optimal levels of protein, fats, vitamins and minerals, as well as good flavors from umami-rich foods. Another way to ensure your diet can help fight depression is to reduce your intake of sugar. Diets high in sugar are linked to depression, and studies have shown that foods with a “high glycemic index” (like sweetened foods, white pasta, and more) are linked with a higher risk for depression.
But it’s important to note that while a healthy diet can help improve mental health, depression and anxiety cannot always be solved with diet alone. Even with a healthy diet and lifestyle, some therapeutic or pharmaceutical intervention might be helpful. A vegan friend of mine who has dealt with depression for many years chose to use pharmaceuticals to help her manage her depression, explaining that wellness can only do so much. If you feel like your diet and exercise routine is not enough to reduce or eliminate symptoms of depression, there is no shame in choosing medicine to help you feel your best.