Plant-based diets are growing in popularity for a very good reason. Plants offer nearly all of the vital nutrients the human body needs, but there are a five essential vitamins and minerals which are difficult to obtain in a vegetarian or vegan diet.
This doesn’t mean being a vegetarian is bad. It simply means vegetarians need to be mindful of why they eat, what they eat.
Key Nutrients Not Commonly Found in Plants
To help you ensure your living a longer, healthy life, ensure you are supplementing your vegetarian-based diet with these key nutrients:
- Vitamin B12 needs to be taken as a supplement, if you are on a purely vegetarian diet. Cobalamin is important for cells to grow, make DNA and gain energy. B12 is only found naturally in meat, which is why supplementation is necessary. Low B12 levels may result in memory issues, tiredness, and numbness.
- Those with Vitamin D deficiencies can either eat mushrooms, or take supplements to boost their vitamin D levels. Vitamin D (cholecalciferol) is necessary for healthy muscles and bones, as well as healthy immune, respiratory and nervous systems. Vitamin D is made by our bodies in sunlight, which means sunblock, dark skin and winter months can prevent our bodies from generating enough of it. Vitamin D deficiencies are very common because of how little time we spend outdoors nowadays, so be sure to ask your doctor to check your vitamin D levels during your annual checkup.
- Iron can be found in foods such as lentils, beans, chia, pumpkin and hemp seeds, dark green leafy vegetables and dried fruits. Iron is important for growth, development and cellular function. People on vegetarian or vegan diets can enhance iron absorption by pairing supplements with acidic foods like oranges, kiwi, strawberries, and pineapples. Low iron levels may result in fatigue, shortness of breath, memory issues and hair loss.
- Vegetarians can find calcium in fortified plant milk, kale, okra, broccoli, watercress, almonds and dried figs. Calcium is important for the musculoskeletal system as well as blood pressure regulation. People who consume alcohol or caffeine may have difficulty absorbing a healthy amount of calcium from food, leading to problems involving bone health. Note that ingestion of excessive calcium is associated with health issues.
- Nuts, seeds, beans, legumes and whole grains are excellent sources of zinc, which is necessary for cell division and repair as well as for the skin, nervous and immune systems. Supplemental zinc is also a common cold treatment. Foods such as beans and nuts should be soaked before cooking in order to decrease the amount of phytic acid, which interferes with the absorption of zinc and other vitamins. Note that daily consumption of over 40 milligrams of zinc in adults can deplete iron and copper stores and may cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and nervous system damage.
Whether you are fully vegetarian, vegan, or simply being mindful of what you eat, eating with a purpose can be beneficial for your health. While these nutrients are essential for supplementing a vegetarian diet, there are many ways to supplement to boost mental focus, physical performance and general immunity.
Caffeine: The World’s Most Overused Psychoactive Drug
Many people depend on a cup of coffee or a can of energy drink for a quick boost during the day, whether they are on an early morning commute to work or putting in late hours for a college study session. However, excessive consumption of caffeine has several drawbacks in terms of personal health.
Caffeine: Friend of Foe?
Caffeine works by blocking the brain’s adenosine receptors, but also stimulates adrenaline and dopamine production. These combined effects result in the elevated energy and mood people experience after drinking a cup of caffeine. Because of this, we generally see caffeine as being beneficial for people in moderation.
However, as a person drinks more caffeine their brain adjusts and they need to consume more caffeine in order to get the same effects. When this happens, people will often drink more caffeine to compensate. This often leads to withdrawal, and most infamously, it eventually affect’s a person’s sleep schedule. Caffeine has become so prevalent in society, many of us mix and use it with other drugs, completely forgetting the fact that caffeine is a psychoactive drug which can lead to serious complications.
The Power of Natural, Cellular Energy
As a doctor, I’m often asked what one can do to get the benefits of increased energy and focus associated with caffeine, without the unwanted side effects?
Well, there are multiple ways to take advantage of the biochemical reactions which go on in our cells in order to boost our energy levels, decrease physical pain or improve our mood.
Here are a few natural molecules which enable our bodies to produce energy at the cellular level:
- Glucose molecules provide energy for our bodies’ cells. Vitamin B1, thiamin, magnesium and zinc can improve our ability to process glucose, allowing for greater physical and mental energy.
- Carnitine molecules allow our cells to turn fat into energy. Vitamin C signals our bodies to create more carnitine, therefore increasing our available energy.
- ATP is the energy carrying molecule our cells make from glucose. Cordyceps can increase ATP production, as well as optimize oxygen utilization to enhance exercise performance and reduce fatigue.
On the opposite end, there are several mechanisms which can damage our cells and decrease our bodies’ performance, such as lactic acid, oxidation and inflammation. We can counter their effects through eating various natural foods and nutritional supplements, in order to boost our physical capability and decrease exhaustion thorough the day.
- Lactic acid is the byproduct of oxygen and glucose imbalance during high stress activities such as exercise, causing breathing issues, fatigue and muscle aches. Vitamin B2, riboflavin, cordyceps and magnesium all reduce lactic acid levels.
- Oxidative stress damages our cells’ DNA, lipids and proteins, preventing them from functioning. NAC supplements help cells create glutathione, an antioxidant which reduces oxidative stress. Other substances that can reduce oxidative stress include vitamin A, C, D, quercetin, bromelain, green tea, elderberry, turmeric, astaxanthin, cordyceps, grape seeds and pomegranates.
- Inflammation in our immune system causes a disarray of cellular signaling, which can cause us to feel tired and unwell. Many natural foods can decrease inflammation, including quercetin, bromelain, green tea, elderberry, turmeric, cordyceps, grape seeds and pomegranates.
Finally, in order to substitute for the mood benefits of caffeine the are ways to naturally support the amount of dopamine in our systems. NAC, cordyceps, turmeric, magnesium, niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin D, and green tea have been linked to elevated dopamine levels. Additionally, eating plants such as peanuts and soybeans increases our bodies’ supply of palmitoylethanolamide (PEA), a chemical which interacts with the endocannabinoid system to reduce stress, pain and inflammation.