Vitamin B12 deficiency is a risk associated with a vegan diet. B12 deficiency can lead to depression, anemia, and even irreversible neuron damage, according to researcher Drew Ramsey, who spoke on the topic at the 2016 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association.
A study of vegans showed that 52% were deficient in vitamin B12, while another 23% had insufficient levels of the vitamin. B12 is found in the highest concentrations in certain seafoods and liver. It is also found in dairy products, eggs, fortified breakfast cereals, and is available in supplement form.
Women who eat a vegan diet while pregnant may not be providing their offspring with enough nutrients, according to researcher Emily Deans, who also spoke at the meeting. A case report on 30 vegan mothers found that 60% of their offspring had developmental delays and 37% showed cerebral atrophy.
Deans said that eating no meat is associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and worse quality of life.
Ramsey believes that while the North American diet is probably weighted too heavily toward animal products, seafood remains an important source of B12.
A long-term study of 130,000 nurses and other health professionals found that eating more plants lowered risk of death over several decades. A 3% increase in calories from plant protein was associated with a 10% lower risk of death during the study period.
The research, by Mingyang Song and colleagues in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, found that the more animal protein consumed, the higher the risk of death from cardiovascular disease during the study. A 10% increase in the proportion of calories from animal protein was associated with a 2% increase in deaths. This association was worse for people who were obese or heavy drinkers.
Song and colleagues suggest that plants are a better source of calories than are animal products, and that fish or chicken are better choices than processed red meat.
Researcher Dariush Mozaffarian recommends eating plant-based foods like fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, and non-starchy vegetables, but avoiding those like French fries or white bread that have little nutritional value.
Diet is important. A study of more than 20,000 mothers revealed that those with unhealthy diets had children with more externalizing disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder, and mania. Diets high in fat and sugar were linked to depression. The Nurses’ Health Study, a long-term epidemiological study of 50,000 women, showed that people who exercised more were less likely to be depressed, while lower muscle mass was associated with greater depression. Exercise also has anti-inflammatory effects.
Avoiding smoking has benefits, too. A study by Pasco and colleagues showed that people who smoke are at increased risk for a new onset of a mood disorder. Smoking is associated with onset of a more severe mood disorder earlier in life, suicide attempts, alcohol and substance abuse, and decreased response to treatment. Fortunately, quitting smoking can reverse some of these risks.
Some people have found that gluten-free or casein-free diets have improved their intestinal, autoimmune, or neurological symptoms. (Casein is a protein found in mammals’ milk. Cow milk is high in casein while human milk proteins are 20–45% casein.) One explanation for the good effects of these diets is that peptides that are released during digestion of these foods can create epigenetic changes in gene expression, adding methyl groups to DNA strands that increase inflammation.
As infants transition from getting all of their nutrition from the placenta to using their gastrointestinal tract, their diet may lead to epigenetic modifications that affect their health later in life. Epigenetics refers to changes in genes that do not affect the inherited sequence of DNA, but affect how easily the DNA is transcribed to produce proteins. Methyl or acetyl groups can be added to DNA or the histones around which it is wound.
When a person digests casein (from either human or animal milk) or gliaden (a protein derived from wheat), peptides are released that activate opioid receptors, modulating the uptake of the amino acid cysteine in neurons and in the gastrointestinal tract. This decrease in cysteine uptake is associated with drop in the antioxidant glutathione and a methyl donor (a molecule with a reactive methyl group that can easily become part of another molecule) called S-Adenosyl methionine.
In addition to decreasing cysteine uptake, the peptides also increase DNA methylation and create epigenetic changes in genes involved in redox (changes in oxidation) and methylation homeostasis.
These processes are described in a 2014 article by Malav S.Trivedi et al. in the Journal of Nutritional Biology. Trivedi et al. conclude that milk and wheat can change antioxidant activity and gene expression. Differences in the peptides in human and cow milk may explain developmental differences between children who are breastfed and those who receive formula.
The decrease in antioxidants caused by peptides from wheat and milk can predispose people to inflammation and oxidation, explaining why wheat- or casein-free diets might be useful.
Contrary to all common sense, researcher Brian Dias showed that when rats that were future fathers learned to associate an odor with a shock, this learning could be passed on to the next generation when the father mated with a female rat that had not learned the same association.
It turns out that the next generation of rat pups shows increased behavioral reactivity to the odor in a process different from the fear conditioning they might exhibit if they learned to avoid the odor through their own experiences.
Presumably, the pup is somehow programmed through an epigenetic modification of the father’s sperm to grow more neurons from the nose to the olfactory bulb that specifically react to the odor its father feared, and not to other odors. Miraculously, when the second generation pup grows up and fathers a third generation pup, the new pup also shows increased behavioral sensitivity to that specific odor. How the odor information from the first generation is represented in the fathers’ sperm and passed on to their descendants is still a complete mystery.
There are also new data that a father rat fed a diet deficient in folic acid (vitamin B9) will sire offspring with more congenital malformations. Additionally, an obese father rat fed a diet that includes extra fat calories will sire pups that become obese as adults even when fed a normal milk diet from a svelte mother before weaning and then fed a normal diet after weaning.
Mothers’ behavior usually gets most of the credit and/or blame for her children’s behavior, but now it looks like fathers’ diet or behavior (even before they have children) may have lasting consequences for their offspring.
Research published last year showed that people with diets that contain high amounts of trans-fats are at greater risk for depression than people with diets higher in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs).
Medscape Medical News reported some tips from lead author of the study, Almudena Sánchez-Villegas, PhD: “The results were not surprising [and] I think the message is clear: ‘try to eat healthy.'”
“Avoid some types of fats, such as trans and saturated fatty acids, and increase the intake of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat; it’s better to consume olive oil than margarine or butter, better to use low-fat dairy than high-fat dairy, and better to eat fish than to consume meat or meat products; avoid fast and processed foods and commercial bakery; and try to increase your consumption of fruits, vegetables, and nuts,” she said.
We’ve been posting recently about diet and about treatments that are weight-neutral. There is evidence that diet, inflammation and depression are all linked. Epidemiological studies by Joe Hiblen have shown that in countries whose populations eat more fish and thus have high levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their diet, there is lower incidence of depression, suicide, and cardiovascular disease such as heart attacks and strokes. This may be because the major omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, are anti-inflammatory, and inflammation has been linked to depression. EPA inhibits the enzymes phospholipase A2 and cyclo-oxygenase-2 (COX-2), and their subsequent inflammatory effects on cytokines. DHA inhibits the pro-inflammatory cytokine IL6.
Researcher John Davis recently reviewed relevant literature and found that diets high in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids are associated with lower incidence of depression, cardiovascular disease, and markers of inflammatory processes. Conversely, diets high in fat and in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids are associated with obesity, depression, and cardiovascular disease.
Various studies have shown the links between inflammation and depression. For example, when patients are given alpha-interferon to treat viral hepatitis, there is a subsequent increase in inflammatory cytokines IL-1 and IL-6, and depression often follows. Also, depressed patients have an increased ratio of pro-inflammatory to anti-inflammatory cytokines in their blood.
Another sign of a link between bipolar illness and inflammation can be seen in biochemical analysis of brain specimens obtained at autopsy. Researcher Rapaka Rao in the laboratory of Stanley Rapoport at the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, has reported that increased markers of neuronal inflammation and excitotoxicity were found in the brains of people who had had bipolar disorder. Phospholipase A2 and COX-2 were significantly elevated in the brains of those with bipolar illness and those with schizophrenia compared with controls. Pro-inflammatory interleukin I was also significantly increased in the brains of those who had had either illness. Read more
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for brain development and function and are essential to the human diet since they cannot be synthesized by the body. Omega-3 fatty acids are derived from canola oil, walnuts, flax seed oil, leafy vegetables, and especially fish. The main omega-3 fatty acids include eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). They have anti-inflammatory effects, unlike omega-6 fatty acids, which are pro-inflammatory. The omega-6 fatty acids come from soy, peanuts, corn oil, and meats, and are associated with increases in obesity, myocardial infarction, and stroke.
In a recent review of the literature, John Davis and Joe Hiblen found that diets that include high levels of omega-3 fatty acids are associated with decreased incidence of depression, suicide, and cardiovascular disease. The researchers performed a meta-analysis of all the prospective depression treatment studies of omega-3 fatty acids compared to placebo. They found that EPA had antidepressant effects in humans, with moderate effect size and a high degree of statistical significance. DHA, however, did not appear to have an antidepressant effect, and pure DHA was even associated with some worsening of depression.
Editor’s note: This meta-analysis helps clarify some of the ambiguities in the literature about the antidepressant efficacy of the omega-3 fatty acids, clarifying that EPA alone is an effective antidepressant. The one study that did not find antidepressant effects with EPA was carried out by the Bipolar Collaborative Network, in which I am an investigator. Our study, published in an article by Keck et al., showed that 6g of EPA was not significantly more effective than placebo in bipolar depression or in rapid cyclers. However, there is some indication that 6g may be too high a dose of EPA, and most of the recommendations now suggest using 1-2g of either EPA or an EPA/DHA combination. Read more