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Plant-Based Diet & Mood

The putative role of arachidonic acid, a fatty acid found in animal products, in mood alteration as a result of brain inflammation.

December 10, 2010 |
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Speaking of chilling out, there’s a stereotype. The angry vegetarian. Who wants to eat healthy if it will just make you cranky? Well, a new study was just released on the emotional health and mood states of vegetarians. We know about the physical health benefits, but might that come at a cost to their mental health, particularly with regard to mood.
They used two two psychological tests: What’s called a Profile of Mood States, looking at depression, anger, hostility, fatigue, confusion. And the Depression Anxiety Stress Scale, designed to measure negative mood states: depression, hopelessness, lack of interest, anhedonia—which means lack of pleasure—anxiety, stress, agitation, irritability, and impatience with people.
What do you think they found. Fact or fiction: Vegetarians tend to be, on average, more depressed, anxious, and sad. Fiction. Vegetarians report significantly less negative emotion than omnivores. Why, though?
They offer two explanations: First, if you’re unhealthy, if you’re sick all the time, going back and forth to doctors, dealing with HMOs—of course you’re going to be more irritable, stressed, and depressed. So they suggest the emotional health of vegetarians may in part be a result of their superior physical health. The second reason may be arachidonic acid.
Arachidonic acid is taken in through the diet, metabolized in the body to produce inflammatory mediators. In fact that’s how anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen work, by interfering with the conversion of arachidonic acid into compounds that produce inflammation, pain, and swelling.
Where is arachidonic acid found in our diet? Here’s a list of the top ten sources in the United States. Overwhelmingly, chicken and eggs, though there’s also some in beef, pork, fish, and other animal products. So maybe one reason vegetarians are, on average, so much happier, more positive, is that arachidonic acid is a key substrate for the synthesis of proinflammatory compounds in the body which can adversely affect mental health via a cascade of neuroinflammation. So omnivores may be more negative, depressed, stressed, hopeless, in part because their brains are so inflamed by their diet.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by veganmontreal.

To help out on the site please email volunteer@nutritionfacts.org

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

Please feel free to post any ask-the-doctor type questions here in the comments section and I’d be happy to try to answer them. And check out the other videos on vegetarians. Also, there are 1,686 other subjects covered in the rest of my videos--please feel free to explore them as well!

For some context, please check out my associated blog posts: Inflammation, Diet, and "Vitamin S"How To Boost Serotonin Naturally, Saffron vs. Prozac for Depression, and How Probiotics Affect Mental Health

If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/BenjaminStone/ Benjamin Stone

    I had read elsewhere that folks with some AA did better with DHA supplementation.

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/mgreger/ Michael Greger M.D.

      If you remember where you saw that please pass it along.

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/kbachman/ Kbachman

    I’m wondering if seventh day adventists might be more positive than the general population. Has a similar study been done of vegetarians who are more representative of the general population?

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/mgreger/ Michael Greger M.D.

      The experimental and control groups were both randomized groups of Adventists, so one would expect this to not have played a role, but to answer your question, no, I haven’t seen anything similar. I’ll keep my eyes out though. Thank you for the question!

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/frozenmermaidn6vegan/ FrozenMermaidN6VEGAN

    Thanks for this video, it is very informative! By the way, is it possible for us to get a copy of the whole original study? One of my friends is very interested, and asked me about it.

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/drdons/ DrDons

      Dr. Greger’s link gives the whole article if it is available for free. Since he only gives the abstract here you would have to pay for it. Many journals charge for articles. If you have access to a medical library or even a good science library you might be able to have them order it for you. I’m fortunate to have access to a medical librarian so I just request the article. As an alternative you might address a letter to the author of the study asking for a reprint. Sorry I couldn’t be of more help.

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/yogachick/ yogachick

    Dr.Greger, I was wondering, can the hormones found in meat and dairy, both naturally occurring and the additional hormones that the animals are given on factory farms, cause mood swings? Would a person suffering from a mood disorder benefit from eating a plant-based diet and ridding their body of all the extra hormones found in meat and dairy?

    • Dave T

      I know this is a year old, but on this site I have seen plenty of indications that the naturally occurring hormones in cow (and goat) milk are biologically active in humans. Organic milk doesn’t help since milk naturally has hormones even when nothing is added. For example, look up acne on the site here and you’ll find plenty of articles about how milk may exacerbate acne (which is widely regarded as being caused by hormones, hence the reason it flares up in the teen years… though it can persist for much longer perhaps due to diet). I’m not sure about hormones in meat.

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/bdirnbac/ bdirnbac

    In considering the video associated with the study, “Restriction of meat, fish, and poultry in omnivores improves mood: a pilot randomized controlled trial,”
    I find this research and video confusing when compared to the Wikipedia entry on Arachidonic Acid (ARA). See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arachidonic_acid.
    There it’s noted that ARA is crucial for: muscle growth. {“Through its conversion to active components such as the prostaglandin PGF2alpha, arachidonic acid is necessary for the repair and growth of skeletal muscle tissue.[10] This role makes ARA an important dietary component in support of the muscle anabolic process.”};
    and for brain health including early neurological development {“Arachidonic acid is one of the most abundant fatty acids in the brain, and is present in similar quantities to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The two account for approximately 20% of its fatty acid content.[12] Like DHA, neurological health is reliant upon sufficient levels of arachidonic acid. Among other things, arachidonic acid helps to maintain hippocampal cell membrane fluidity.[13] It also helps protect the brain from oxidative stress by activating peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma.[14] ARA also activates syntaxin-3 (STX-3), a protein involved in the growth and repair of neurons.[15]”} What about dietary arachidonic acid and inflammation? “Under normal metabolic conditions, the increased consumption of arachidonic acid is unlikely to increase inflammation. ARA is metabolized to both pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory molecules.[20] Studies giving between 840 mg and 2,000 mg per day to healthy individuals for up to 50 days have shown no increases in inflammation or related metabolic activities.[20][21][22][23] Increased arachidonic acid levels are actually associated with reduced pro-inflammatory IL-6 and IL-1 levels, and increased anti-inflammatory tumor necrosis factor-beta.[24] This may result in a reduction in systemic inflammation.” Finally from Wikipedia: “Health effects of arachidonic acid supplementation – Arachidonic acid supplementation in daily dosages of 1,000-1,500 mg for 50 days has been well tolerated during several clinical studies, with no significant side-effects reported. All common markers of health including kidney and liver function,[22] serum lipids,[26] immunity,[27] and platelet aggregation[21] appear to be unaffected with this level and duration of use. Furthermore, higher concentrations of ARA in muscle tissue may be correlated with improved insulin sensitivity.[28] Arachidonic acid supplementation by healthy adults appears to offer no toxicity or significant safety risk.”
    So is ARA necessary for muscular and brain health, or should it be eliminated from diet? Could these mood test results be an example of the placebo effect? The omnivores who became vegan understood that they were radically changing their diet unlike the other subjects; in a double-blind experiment the subjects do not have such information.

    • Gary Loewenthal

      Even if it was placebo, hey it’s working. But I doubt it. Vegetarians often face marginalization, negative stereotypes, and a barrage of meat promotion. The study may underestimate the mood-enhacing effects of a veg diet.

  • April Barnswell

    I transitioned quickly from an omnivorous diet to a vegan diet in January 2012. Almost immediately, I noticed that my mood improved. My chronic daily anxiety (I awoke every morning in fight-or-flight mode) and low-level depression that I had suffered from for years improved almost immediately, and within a few weeks they were nonexistent.

    • Michael Greger M.D.

       I’m so glad to hear!

  • Michael Greger M.D.

    For some context, please check out my associated blog post Inflammation, Diet, and “Vitamin S”!

  • NurseK

    I regularly see patients fill out a self depression analysis  survey before and after their 18 day lifestyle program and our statistics indicate very high upward shifts in mood with the vegan diet.

  • Kathy

    I heard when total cholesterol is too low…under 130 or so one can experience anxiety/depression….happened to me…..feel much better now my total cholesterol is 170

  • Linda

    This explains why my sister who has had a long standing mental health issue has been significantly better since she has become vegan.

  • Erin Moss

    I still have serious mental health issues, even though I was a vegetarian from age 11 to 15, vegan from 15 to 22, and then “mostly vegan” with a few backyard eggs a year for the last year.
    I have no doubt that my diet and active lifestyle plays a huge part in keeping me healthy, but I don’t think I would be alive without the help of anti-depressants and anti-psychotics. My body stopped producing enough serotonin when I was an adolescent. Even with healthy eating, I can’t overcome the deficiency, but merely maintain my levels – is there a way that I can get my body producing the good stuff properly again? I already go out of my way to eat plant-based foods high in L-trypothan.
    I also have started on EPA supplements, to overcome the “brain fog” caused by the anti-depressants. I’m told to get 1000mg a day. I would prefer to try and boost these levels with food, rather than supplements, but it is hard to get enough from food-alone. Do you think going on the supplements for a few months is enough to boost this, and then I’ll be able to maintain this with food naturally high in EPA?
    I look forward to your opinion – thank you!

    • guest

      Avoid all grains, especially gluten grains. This changed my life as a vegan. Most beans as well. Eat romaine, spinach for omega 3. Lots of fruit and veggies. Eliminate caffeine. But please, no wheat, no gluten grains! If you want to get specific, check out the “SCD” diet. Good luck.

  • YourMommaSoFat

    I felt a bit better when I went Vegan but I felt worlds better when I started counting how much fat I was eating and then reducing it. I also lost a crazy amount of weight and moved out of home where I was surrounded by negative depressing family members. I was depressed in that time from fat and negative people.

  • Mindaugas Raulinaitis

    Conclusions: In Western cultures vegetarian diet is associated with an elevated risk of mental disorders.

    Vegetarian diet and mental disorders: results from a representative community survey
    International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2012, 9:67 doi:10.1186/1479-5868-9-67

    http://www.ijbnpa.org/content/9/1/67