Supporting Mental Wellness with Plant Foods

Article by Denise Massie, B.Sc., R.H.N.

The challenges of the past few years have shown the importance of mental health. We inhabit one body and it is impossible to isolate the state of the body from the state of the mind. Mental wellness is a complex issue and demands a holistic approach. While it is not sufficient, good nutrition is essential, since the foods we choose to eat can either support or oppose optimal functioning.

To build and maintain a well-connected nervous system, our body requires the right building blocks. It should come as no surprise that reducing or eliminating processed, packaged, and convenience foods is a good idea. These foods may provide energy in the form of calories, but they are deficient in the important nutrients we require. What’s worse, they often contain additives, preservatives, damaged fats, and other anti-nutrients.

A well-balanced diet centred around whole plant foods, on the other hand, provides ample carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. In addition, it is plentiful in vitamins, minerals, fibre, antioxidants, and phytonutrients, many of which are found primarily or only in plants. The more stress our bodies and minds experience, whether that stress is real or perceived, the more demand we have for these vital micronutrients.

Our digestive system and our brain are so intimately connected, this bi-directional link is termed the “gut-brain axis”. Anyone who has felt “butterflies” in their stomach when they are excited or had stomach cramps when they are anxious knows that our brain can send signals to our gut. It works the other way too. Our gut, or more specifically, the microbiota (or microorganisms) in our gut has a powerful influence over our thoughts and moods. When we have the right balance in our gut, our mood is more stable, our thoughts are clearer, and our memory is better. When that balance is off, symptoms can surface and problems arise.

As we learn more about the importance of the ecosystem in our bellies, a twist on the old adage “you are what you eat” becomes “you are what your microbiome eats”. We can nurture beneficial microrganisms by feeding them what they like to eat. Plant foods rich in prebiotic dietary fibre encourages the growth and proliferation of these tiny helpers. In fact, dietary fibre comes only from plants, and it is also needed for proper bowel function, elimination of wastes and toxins. Without enough fibre, toxins recirculate, we experience constipation, gas, bloating, and we get grumpy. When our bowels are moving well we feel better an our mood improves.

The food we eat influences our body’s ability to regulate inflammatory processes and a wide range of psychiatric conditions including anxiety and depression are related to chronic inflammation. Plant foods such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp hearts, and walnuts are excellent sources of essential anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. At the same time, a primarily plant-based diet reduces or eliminates pro-inflammatory arachidonic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid only found in food that comes from animals. In fact, research has shown that those consuming a diet lower in arachidonic acid reported significantly better scores on the Depression, Anxiety, Stress scale.

There is a lot we cannot control in life and our days are bound to be full of many stressors. We can however, tip the scales in our favour with our food choices. By filling our plates with whole, vibrant plant foods we support our body’s innate resilience and move toward better mental wellness.