BECOMING EVEN NICER
I recently discovered a website called bookbub.com. It's an eBook discovery service and if you sign up you'll receive every day, by email, 3 or 4 recommendations for eBooks that are free or cost $1.99 or less -- and also match your interests. Recently one caught my eye -- Daughter of Earth and Water, by Noel Gerson -- about the life of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. But that's not what this post is about.
Mary Shelley lived an interesting life in an interesting time, the first half of the 19th century at the beginning of the Romantic era in literature. She was a voracious reader, reading several books a week, a professional writer, and a very devoted wife and mother. but what was most interesting was her marriage to the genius poet-writer Percy Bysshe Shelley, five years her elder, with whom she eloped, not marrying, but initially cohabitating with while he was still married yet separated from his first wife and child.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was something of a radical, a progressive during his day, 1820s. He was a firm believer in the equality of sexes, an atheist, and a free thinker, who believed in free love, but by all accounts was faithful to Mary, though obviously not so to his first wife. Shelley and Mary immediately married upon his first wife's death, and remained married until his premature drowning death at the age of 29 while sailing off the coast of Italy, where they had lived in something of a self-imposed exile from his native England.
But as one thing leads to another in learning something new, I came to a link on Shelley's essays. One particular essay caught my eye -- "The Vindication of the Natural Diet". It was his promotion of a vegetarian diet, written around 1813 when he was about 21. The word "vegetarian" had not yet been invented. But he was a practitioner and proponent of avoiding all animal meats, and holding to a diet strictly of fruits, vegetables, and grains, drinking only distilled water. While the history of vegetarianism is a long one, Shelley was advocating it 35 years before the founding of the American Vegetarian Society in 1850.
What was distinctive about Shelley's particular promotion of vegetarianism was his ethical and moral interests. He claimed there was a behavioral connection, claiming those who ate meat were more inclined to aggressive and violent behaviors while those who abstained from eating of the flesh to be more inclined to a simpler, peaceful existence. Also, he claimed, and as it was becoming to be more realized in scientific circles, that one was more likely to have an absence of disease if one ate fruits and vegetables compared to those who also ate meat.
His views about diet, along with his poetry, were viewed as being on the fringe. But modern science has essentially vindicated him with objective findings. We now know that neurotransmitters in the brain that are responsible for nerve impulse transmission, rely on certain precursors or amino acids that come from the food we eat. They are then transported from the blood into the brain by carrier molecules.
A common example is with the neurotransmitter serotonin. Healthy levels of serotonin causes sleepiness and a quiet mood. But its synthesis depends on the amount of tryptophan that is presented to it in the blood, for transport across the blood-brain barrier. The more tryptophan, the more serotonin. Less tryptophan, less serotonin. Tryptophan is found in turkey, milk, and bananas. Also, a meal high in carbohydrates causes competing amino acids to be sucked up into the body's cells, allowing tryptophan to be more effectively transported into the brain for the synthesis of more serotonin.
We also now know that children who eat large amounts of processed foods with preservative chemicals behave in more hyperactive and aggressive ways. My daughter-in-law and son last year decided to eliminate or significantly minimize processed foods, sugary cereals, and snack foods from their family's diet. She's shared on Facebook the remarkable change it's made in their three children's behavioral and academic marks at school. Their experience and the similar experience of other parents, while anecdotal, can be read about at various sites on the Internet.
A new area of medicine, Nutritional Psychiatry, is beginning to emerge. In the same way a balanced diet is important to cardiology, psychiatry is beginning to see the benefits of diet and nutrition in preventing and treating mental illnesses. Omega-3 fatty acids seem to have antidepressant effects. Sauerkraut and fermented foods have been shown to have beneficial effects on mental health. Antioxidants have been shown to protect the brain from "waste" products (free radicals made from oxygen use) which can damage brain cells and affect behavior.
People who eat a Mediterranean diet or the traditional Japanese diet have a 25% lower risk of depression compared to those eating the "Western" diet -- meats, fat, processed and refined foods. And there are a few prisons that have given inmates the option of a plant-based diet (fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes) and, again while anecdotal, it's been observed and even measured by way of number of aggressive and violent events of inmates that those inmates who eat a plant-based diet have statistically fewer of these violent events.
In reflecting on this one must wonder if steroids and steroid derivatives in meats might be responsible for certain aggressive behaviors -- not unlike "roid rage" of athletes who imbibe or inject steroids for enhanced fitness and react to unexpected or adverse events around them.
Some say the function poets have in society is one that is visionary and transcendent in addition to that of language awareness. Some say they also tell us how to live courageously. But I suppose some can even sometimes point the way to teaching us how to live healthily -- and perhaps along the way becoming even nicer people.