Boost your Mood with Food – Food for Mental Health During Covid-19

“How are you all holding up?” My principal asks this question at the start of every virtual teacher staff meeting. Most of us don’t answer – we just give a computer thumbs up. Why does she ask? Well, for the first time in history, teachers are experiencing isolation and shelter-in-place mandates. This is not only true of teachers, but of most Americans across the country. Some parents are not only working from home or unemployed, but are also new “teachers” – overseeing their children’s motivation levels and enforcing time management. Funny memes represent the angst being experienced, tik-tok videos make us laugh with relatable material and increasing dialogue is shared on social media about our new normal. Our minds are barraged by negative news, our emotions toyed with and if we are not careful, negativity can quickly set in. The song, “Ya’ll gon make me lose my mind up in here,” illustrates the current state of many people. Understanding we are not alone in this confusion is a start. Controlling what we see, think, and create, is a must. Knowing how we can best protect our body and brain – empowering. As we remain at home for protection, let us also take note of the foods we eat, because our moods and health are definitely affected by our choices.

I recently saw a Facebook post of an overweight lady. The quote stated, “If you emerge the pandemic with a few extra pounds, consider yourself lucky.” I paused when I saw this, and was a bit annoyed. I presumed that the expression was to create gratitude in those who had food. Got it. Ok, so I understood that concept, but wasn’t sure the extra pounds were necessarily a plus or necessity. I then thought of families across our nation who were food insecure and had to rely on donations form local food banks. One of my students recently shared that the box they received had some great processed chocolate rice treats – he was happy. I wasn’t thrilled to hear that, but was thankful for their food. Other Americans live in food deserts and have little to no access to fresh foods. Most non-profit organizations providing foods to families do so with love and try their best to deliver the healthiest forms of nutrition. Clearly they would prefer only supplying nutritious items, but since their hands are tied with awaiting donations, most is processed. What about the rest of the “lucky” ones, as the Facebook meme expressed, who are buying their food? Are the extra pounds something to take on as a blessing? What foods should one purchase during a Pandemic when wanting to improve health, and also boost moods? Are sugary snacks the answer we all seek?

More than a third of Americans say that Covid-19 is impacting their mental health and nearly two thirds believe the pandemic has had a serious impact on their day-to-day lives, according to a national poll conducted last month by the American Psychiatric Association. Some daily alterations that are manifesting are: anxiety, uncertainty, changes in routines, sleep-deprivation and restlessness. When my principal asks, “how are you all holding up” it is because most Americans are not doing so well and quite frankly, are sad. Some are anxious, depressed, stress eating and choosing what has been deemed as “comfort foods” to alleviate their discomfort. Unfortunately, these foods are usually processed, come in boxes, and contain great amounts of sugar and unhealthy fats. Since diet and mental health are related, how do these foods affect us? Emotional depression is defined as “feelings of severe despondency and dejection; when self-doubt creeps in and that swiftly turns to depression.” As we know, many are experiencing these types of emotions. Self-doubt with employment, health, ability to maintain relationships, or completing future goals can take a toll on the mind. Since depression is compounded with social isolation, this current time in history has a making of a serious mental health crisis. Not only self-doubt, but unhealthy foods also negatively affect the development of the brain. Parents comforting their children in this time with sugary items are indeed harming them.  In human and animal studies, diets high in sugar and simple carbohydrates result in the shrinkage of the brain, as mentioned in a recent article. So how do we positively comfort ourselves, because let’s face it – this is a difficult time. Extraordinary situations are all around us, and everyone is coping differently. The good news is we can improve our moods and health through proper food choices.

Let’s talk about BDNF. Oh – you may not know this acronym, but it is affecting you right now – as you read this.  “Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factors” is a protein that is essential for the birth of new brain cells and clearly something we want! This protein is positively impacted by: Zinc, long chain omega-3 fats, niacin, taurine, and magnesium. While most of us are not taking over the counter pills with these marked labels, we luckily can find them in the foods we eat. One way to ensure we add these to our food intake is by following the Mediterranean Diet nutritional recommendations. In 2017, Jacka and her team conducted the “SMILES” trial, which showed that when people consumed a Mediterranean-based diet with guidance from a clinical dietician, they showed a marked improvement in symptoms of depression. Mediterranean diets are ideal for mental wellness because they are high in fiber and Omega-3 fatty acids. The recommended foods are vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, potatoes, whole grains, breads, herbs, spices, fish, seafood and extra virgin olive oil. These foods not only build defenses, but also enhance our moods and reduce inflammation. A Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce the risk for depression by about 30%. “Superfoods” such as dark chocolate, kale, and lentils are also known to improve moods. (In our house, oven baked Kale, lentil pasta and dark chocolate morsels are staple items for “pick me ups.”) Choosing the foods mentioned above improves your moods and heals another important part of mental health; your gut.

Another important relationship to your moods is between the brain and your gut. Yes – your stomach actually aids your state of mind. They actually have a very close relationship. The better state your micro biome (gut bacteria) finds itself, the happier you are! Your gut bacterium produces hormones and neurotransmitters, such as GABA, dopamine, and serotonin, (the happy hormone), and regulates your moods.  The article, shares that around 95% of serotonin, which is involved in many biological functions such as appetite and digestion, mood, memory, and sex drive, is produced and stored within cells in the gut. Another key component to protecting your gut is the elusive Vagus Nerve. It is powerful and directly affected by what you eat! The Vagus Nerve is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which monitors mood regulation, immune response, and other functions. All in all, your stomach is doing a lot to try and make sure you smile.

What does The Mediterranean Diet and gut health have in common? They might just save your mind! Yes, we must shelter in place and practice social distancing.  Avoiding the Coronavirus and protecting ourselves from this infection is a daily preoccupation. Of course we should comfort our families with delicious meals and snacks; but may we remember that exiting this pandemic successfully does not have to involve extra pounds or unhealthy habits. If the choice can be made – choose the foods that truly improve your moods. Your mind and body will thank you now, and in your bright future!

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