Exploring the connections between diet choices and mental health
This story is both scientific and personal.
In taking a continuing education course on trauma-informed care as part of my ongoing training as a physical therapist. I was surprised to find a few things listed under some common characteristics and conditions of those who have survived trauma. Asthma was one, which is also known as a highly inflammatory disease. But the surprise was a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. This revelation definitely made me raise an eyebrow.
I had chosen a course focused on practicing trauma-informed care since almost all of my patients seem to be recovering from the traumatic events related to whatever brought them into the hospital. I always welcome gaining insight into how to better connect with those in my care. The typical manifestations of trauma are seemingly easy to recognize while working with my patients.
But how does trauma relate to choosing a plant-based diet? This question led me to do some research.
First of all, let me disclose that I am a survivor of childhood sexual assault, I have asthma that developed in my early adulthood, and I also happen to be vegan. When the slide denoting these two things as connected to trauma popped up on my computer, I was immediately engaged with the presentation.
I never thought of my diet choice as a trauma response, but I acknowledge that I derive a certain sense of satisfaction from having control of my diet. A functional medicine doctor convinced me to transition from a vegetarian diet to a vegan diet to help manage inflammation, one manifestation of which is asthma, another depression.
A quick Google search doesn’t truly reveal an answer to my question. Most studies or articles relating to this typically approach plant-based diets as either a cause of mental illness or as an illness itself. One article goes so far as to group veganism under the umbrella of avoidance restrictive food intake disorder.
However, most of the survey style studies showed that those who adopted a vegetarian or vegan diet did so after the onset of depression or anxiety. So the diet doesn’t cause mental illness.
Positive takes on plant-based diets do exist. A scientific study correlates vegetarian lifestyles with healthy mood states. One article discusses veganism as a logical outcome of the moral reckonings of highly sensitive and emotionally intelligent people. Still, other resources cite plant-based diets as a means of healing from trauma.
The only experience I have to relate to the correlation between diet choice and trauma survival is my own. I began my journey to going vegan as a pescatarian when I was 18. I gave up meat because the thought of eating sentient beings disturbed me. And why is that?
Living my life through a trauma lens made me more empathetic to all the suffering in this world, including that of animals. Why is it right for me to eat a cow or pig? They experience fear and sadness just like humans. And my empathy for these creatures is immense.
I recently went to see Avatar 2 with my daughter. It was really emotional for me. There is whale hunting involved. Understanding the relationship that the fictional Na’vi people have with the wildlife in their midst, it was excruciating to watch these parts. I sobbed like a baby. If James Cameron is trying to convince everyone to adopt a vegan diet like him, he did a pretty convincing job!
Perhaps as a vegan, my reaction to these scenes was different and more powerful than for most viewers. But James Cameron certainly did his best to evoke an emotional response from his audience.
But still, my real question remains unanswered. Does trauma contribute to choosing a diet that avoids exploiting animals? I’m not even sure if the topic is worth researching or even if a real conclusion can be reached.
To my fellow plant-based eaters, if you are also survivors of trauma, I send you the biggest, warmest hug. I’d also like to know if your experience with trauma helped lead you to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.
Regardless, I can’t imagine going back to eating animals at this point in my life. It’s been nearly 6 years. I don’t miss eating meat. And the longer I live this way, the more I see all living beings as deserving of compassion and respect. I do not wish to be responsible for inflicting trauma on any other sentient being. This I can live with. But is my diet choice helping me heal from my own trauma? That is yet to be determined.
Have you ever heard of the correlation between plant-based diets and surviving trauma? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
As always, I hope you all are safe and healthy.