Treating the symptoms and underlying causes of ill health with a plant-based diet

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This article addresses various physical and psychological ailments that are linked to poor nutrition. A plant-based diet can often help to solve these problems. However, persistent symptoms should always be discussed with a medical professional.

Heartburn and acid reflux

While heartburn often occurs by itself, it can also happen in conjunction with other symptoms of ill health such as acid reflux. The most common cause of these symptoms is gastroesophageal reflux disease, which affects around 15% of the population in Western industrialized countries. Recurrent and severe symptoms diminish quality of life and should be discussed with a doctor. While heartburn that only occurs once or twice a week is not cause for alarm and does not require specific medical treatment, it can often be prevented or managed by avoiding certain foods.1

Eating a healthy quantity of unprocessed fruit and vegetables can counteract heartburn, although citrus and other acidic fruits should be avoided. Refined foods, alcohol, and caffeine, as well as animal fats, meat, and other sources of animal protein are equally unsuitable for people who regularly experience heartburn.2 (See ProVeg’s vegan food plate for a useful guide to healthy plant-based nutrition.)

Abdominal pain, flatulence, and diarrhoea

Regular stomach aches, flatulence, or diarrhoea, particularly after meals, often indicate the presence of an allergy or food intolerance. Of the wide array of possible problems with regard to the digestion of animal products, lactose intolerance is one of the most common. People with lactose intolerance produce less of the digestive enzyme lactase, which prevents the body from digesting lactose. Instead, the undigested lactose ferments – primarily in the intestinal tract – and is turned into gases and acetic acid, which, in turn, can lead to flatulence, abdominal pain, and/or diarrhoea.3

The majority of people in Asia and Africa are lactose intolerant and thus cannot digest lactose. In Europe, the prevalence of lactose intolerance varies from southern to northern regions. In Northern Europe, 2% of the population are affected. This number climbs to 15-20% in Germany and to 25% in the Mediterranean.4 Worldwide, 75% of people are lactose intolerant.5 A preliminary indication of lactose intolerance is the occurrence of the above-mentioned symptoms after ingesting cow’s milk or other dairy products. Final diagnoses by medical professionals are usually made using a breath or blood-sugar test. Lactose intolerance is most easily treated by omitting foods containing lactose. A purely plant-based diet is lactose-free. (See here for ProVeg’s guide to the best plant-based alternatives to cow’s milk.)

Irritable bowel syndrome (or IBS) is another common form of indigestion. Around 11% of the global population are affected by this disease6, with the most common symptoms including abdominal pain and cramps. IBS is a chronic disorder of the gastrointestinal tract, the exact cause of which has not yet been determined. However, an appropriate diet can help alleviate the symptoms. The foods that cause stomach pain and discomfort vary from person to person but often include milk and dairy products, alcohol, citrus fruits, and foods rich in fat, acid, or fructose, as well as overly refined foods.7 8 People suffering from IBS should eat a diet consisting mainly of cooked vegetables and avoid animal protein, sugar, coffee, and spicy food.9 (See ProVeg’s vegan food plate for a guide to healthy plant-based eating.)

Hair loss, brittle hair and nails

Losing 50-100 hairs per day is normal and there is generally no need to worry if there is a good balance between hair loss and regrowth. However, in some cases, hair loss or brittle hair can be the result of a nutrient deficiency. A lack of biotin, vitamin B12, essential fats, protein, zinc, or iron is particularly problematic when it comes to hair loss10, while brittle nails may be the result of a lack of iron, calcium, zinc, biotin, folic acid, or vitamins A, C, or B12.11

A plant-based diet can provide the body with a wealth of micronutrients and thus prevent a deficiency of vitamins and minerals. A complete blood count can provide information on potential nutrient deficiencies, while a sufficient supply of these nutrients should alleviate any problems with hair and nails.12 ProVeg provides information on foods that are especially rich in iron, zinc, and other nutrients.

Skin problems: atopic dermatitis and acne

Atopic dermatitis, also known as atopic eczema, is a condition that is most common in children and manifests itself as skin hypersensitivity. It is one of the most common skin diseases, affecting around 20% of children and up to 3% of adults worldwide.13 The disease is usually indicated by weeping rashes on the bends of the knee and elbow joints. In addition to a genetic disposition, symptoms of atopic dermatitis can also be triggered by food allergies.14 It may, therefore, make sense to avoid foods such as cow’s milk15 and eggs as well as other common allergens related to atopic dermatitis such as nuts and tomatoes. Children usually show symptoms (such as itching) only a few hours after ingesting the allergen. In general, a healthy, predominantly plant-based diet with a focus on a sufficient supply of vitamin D is recommended.16 17

Acne is one of the most common skin diseases among adolescents. First signs of acne can appear even before puberty but the disease usually peaks in late adolescence and subsides after the hormonal adjustment to adulthood is complete. Evidence of these hormonal changes is particularly pronounced in the areas of the skin that are rich in sebaceous glands such as the face, back, and middle chest region. To minimise the occurrence of acne, avoid animal fats and take care not to consume excessive amounts of simple carbohydrates. Overdosing on multivitamins can also increase the likelihood of acne occurring. Clearer skin, on the other hand, can be achieved by eating a balanced plant-based diet, including foods that contain zinc.18 19 20

Weakened immune system

In addition to physical activity, sleeping habits, and one’s mental and emotional state, nutritional factors are also a key influence on our immune system. Those who do not ensure an adequate supply of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals greatly increase the risk of developing a weak immune system and associated diseases. Phytochemicals, in particular, play an important role in keeping the body healthy. They prevent oxidative stress, inhibit inflammation, and ensure optimal nutrient absorption by cells.21 Fruits and vegetables contain large quantities of these vital compounds – the more of them that are present in one’s diet, the lower the risk of a weakened immune system and associated secondary diseases, particularly when coupled with plenty of wholemeal foods and exercise.22

Vitamin C supports the immune system. Citrus fruits, strawberries, sweet peppers and broccoli are especially rich in this vitamin. Other plants considered to have antibacterial and immune-strengthening properties include radish, celery, leek, onions, and garlic. Ginger is regarded as particularly beneficial for people with a weakened immune system: it has anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic effects, promotes digestion, helps with the absorption of micronutrients, and facilitates the excretion of toxins by the liver and kidneys.23 The mineral selenium has also been recognised as an immune booster and is found in sunflower seeds, potatoes, soya products, and fresh vegetables. 24

Fatigue and exhaustion

Stress, pressure to perform, and lack of sleep all deprive the body of energy and often lead to exhaustion. In many cases, the problem is compounded by a lack of nutrients.

In order to strengthen your sense of well-being, it is important to recharge your batteries and compensate for the impact of stress on your body. Foods such as parsley, Jerusalem artichokes, soya, millet, spinach, and beetroot provide the body with the vital minerals iron and magnesium. Magnesium, which protects the body from stress-induced ailments25, is found in all leafy greens, as well as nuts, cocoa and wheat germ. With their high content of B vitamins, celery, wholegrain cereals, walnuts, and soya can help strengthen the nervous system26, while beetroot can help to improve mental performance.27 High levels of vitamin C are found in peppers, parsley, broccoli, currants, and lemons. Avocado and linseed oil will also help to restore energy levels due to their high content of unsaturated fatty acids.

Vitamin C also plays a key role in the absorption of iron.28 Supplying the body with too little iron can lead to iron-deficiency anaemia, which reduces the blood’s ability to transport oxygen. Consequences usually include exhaustion, fatigue, and/or headaches (see headaches).29 Foods with high iron content include cereals (such as amaranth and quinoa), pulses (soya, lentils, etc.), and seeds (pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, linseed).

Finally, avoid simple carbohydrates such as sugar and white flour. Beverages which contain caffeine – including coffee and energy drinks – also have an adverse effect on mental and physical performance since they only provide short bursts of energy.30 In addition to iron-deficiency anaemia, persistent exhaustion can also indicate a deficiency in vitamin D, a thyroid disorder, or irregularities in blood pressure, and should be examined by a doctor.31

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)

Premenstrual syndrome comprises a set of symptoms that affects one in three women for 4-14 days prior to menstruation.32 The most common symptoms include psychological phenomena such as depressed moods or mood swings, anxiety, irritability, and feeling overwhelmed. Typical physical symptoms include drowsiness, difficulty with sleeping, changes in appetite, head and back pain, digestive problems, weight gain, and swelling of the breasts.33

As well as sufficient physical exercise, there are several tried-and-tested nutrition tips which can alleviate the symptoms of PMS. Eating 4-6 regular, smaller meals containing complex carbohydrates such as wholegrain foods, steamed or fresh vegetables, and fruit, as well as drinking herbal teas can help manage the symptoms. However, white flour, carbonated mineral waters, nightshade plants (such as tomatoes, onions, garlic, and potatoes), alcohol, caffeine, sugar, salt, and meals with fat content exceeding 20% should be avoided or reduced.34 Calcium, magnesium, and vitamin B6 (see depressive mood swings) also have a positive effect on PMS. Magnesium-rich foods include cocoa, cashews, peanuts, almonds, soya protein, wholegrain bread, oat flakes, beans, and lentils. Foods that are high in calcium include sesame, spinach, soya products, hazelnuts and kale.35 For a higher intake of vitamin B6 eat increased quantities of legumes, nuts, seeds, and soya products.36

Menopausal symptoms

Symptoms of menopause may begin to appear around the age of 40. This is caused by hormonal changes, marked, in particular, by a decline in production of the female hormone oestrogen. About two-thirds of women experience hot flushes and intense sweating as a result of this change. Other symptoms may include problems with falling asleep as well as interrupted sleep (see sleep disorders), mood swings, and depressed moods (see depressed moods). As oestrogen levels decrease, the risk of osteoporosis increases since oestrogen helps to maintain bone density.37 38

Menopausal symptoms can be managed through a combination of diet and exercise.39 A wholefood plant-based diet that is rich in vitamins and minerals (especially vitamin D and calcium), along with a high proportion of raw food, can improve general well-being during this period of hormonal change. Avoiding animal-based foods can also have a positive effect on the symptoms. Among other things, doing so can prevent the depletion of valuable bone tissue, which in turn reduces the risk of osteoporosis.40 41

Sleep disorders

Sleep disorders or interrupted sleep are particularly frequent during times of professional or personal stress. A plant-based diet can have a positive effect on the quality of sleep. Potatoes, vegetables, elderflowers, and dark grapes, as well as foods containing tryptophan (bananas, soya, walnuts) and B vitamins (which aid in the synthesis of serotonin), can improve quality of sleep. Eating late at night and consuming meals that are difficult to digest, as well as heavily seasoned food, alcohol, and caffeine, will all impact negatively on your sleep. Animal-based foods such as bacon, ham, sausage, and mature cheese also interfere with sleep.42 43 Sleep problems can be caused by a number of factors, which is why long-term symptoms should be evaluated by a doctor.

Depressed moods

Depressed moods and feeling glum are not synonymous with depression (however, serious depression should always be treated by a medical professional). Many factors may be at play, including nutrition. The following B vitamins are particularly effective at strengthening the nervous system: B3 (niacin), B6 (pyridoxine), and B12 (cobalamin). Foods containing vitamin B3 include wheat bran, yeast flakes, soya, rye, peanuts, cashews, and seeds. Good sources of Vitamin B6 include pulses, wholegrain products, seeds, and nuts.44 On a purely plant-based diet, vitamin B12 should be supplied using dietary supplements.45 Depressed moods can also occur during menopause (see menopausal symptoms).

Headache and migraines

Headaches and migraines can be caused by numerous factors – changes in the weather, medication, stress, and diet are all potential triggers. In addition to using lemons for pain relief and consuming plenty of fluids46, the essential fats (particularly omega-3 fatty acids) contained in linseeds, walnuts, as well as rapeseed and soya oils can also help reduce the likelihood of headaches.47 48
Migraines can be caused by foods such as chocolate, cheese, industrially processed meats, cow’s milk, and alcohol (especially wine).49 Furthermore, you should avoid ready meals and fast food. Migraines or frequent headaches should be treated by a specialist if they persist for extended periods.

Pro Health

These are general nutrition guidelines. If you have concerns about your diet, please talk to your doctor about seeing a dietitian. Discussing the use of supplements with a health professional will help to ensure that they are suitable for you. Never stop taking prescribed medications without first talking to your doctor.

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Last updated: 16.01.2019

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