We are just over six weeks in to our new normal and for many people the change to the day to day living is so great that it may take a while to be accepted as normal. This state of uncertainty is a major trigger for heightened levels of stress and anxiety in the general population and for those who were already experiencing symptoms of stress and anxiety, the new reality may be overwhelming. On top of it all are the endless tales of hidden agendas, conspiracy theories, fake news and doomsday predictions for the future – it makes for a very unsettling time for even the most resilient amongst us. It is in moments like these that the established pillars of good health – exercise, nutrition, relaxation and sleep – provide solid focal points to help us navigate our way through this current crisis and emerge from it stronger and healthier than ever. Nutrition has long been considered as a co-factor to our mental health and well-being and the approach to managing this crisis is no different to others when it comes to choosing good mood food. Now, with everyone spending more time in the kitchen, we have an unexpected opportunity to control the controllable when it comes to our food choices and to optimize our nutrition to support our mental health.
It has long been suggested that the dysregulation of neurotransmitters, which send messages throughout the brain and body, may be a cause for anxiety. These neurotransmitters include GABA, serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. Nutritional psychiatry has made great headway in establishing meaningful dietary interventions that have a positive effect on the regulation of these feel good neurotransmitters, providing us with a safe and easy first step to manage our anxiety levels. The growing interest in the gut microbiome has also suggested that the gut-brain link is of greater importance than originally thought. Not surprising, when we already know that 95% of our serotonin receptors are in the gut linings. A diet rich in fruit, vegetables and legumes are crucial to maintaining both the intestinal linings and the good bacteria that inhabit them. Not only do we need to consume good bacteria in fermented foods – yogurt, kefir, kombucha and fermented vegetables (like sauerkraut, miso and kimchi), we also need to consume nutrients such as non-starchy fibre, cruciferous vegetables and beta-carotene foods to keep their environment intact so they flourish and colonize the gut.
Magnesium-rich foods from leafy greens (spinach, chard, kale, green cabbage), seeds and legumes can inhibit excitatory neurotransmitters, diffusing anxiety pathways and are also beneficial to gut bacteria, a win-win side dish for veg when you are on edge! Magnesium affects a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which helps regulate the pituitary and adrenal glands. These glands are responsible for your response to stress. Other food sources for magnesium include avocado, nuts and dark chocolate. Anyone for dessert?
The status of zinc has been elevated to that of a nutritional hero for Covid-19 in its role as an anti-viral agent, but zinc has many other jobs around the body including to produce all neurotransmitters. Although zinc supplements are like gold-dust at the moment, there is zinc in oysters, scallops, liver, beef, egg yolks, tofu, cashews, walnuts, chia, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds and flaxseeds.
B is for brain and B is for B vitamins, without which we would be a whinging, bag of bones. Be creative with your meals filling up with B5, B6 and B12 foods to regulate energy, mood and the stress response. B5 foods include liver, yogurt, tofu, legumes and mushrooms. B6 is found in wholegrains, eggs, soya and fish and B12 from red meat, black beans, dark green vegetables and lentils. Be wary of neuro-disruptors such as alcohol and caffeine, which also affect our sleep, relaxation and motivation to exercise.
Getting back to nutritional psychiatry, researchers have established the biological pathways related to anxiety and other mental health disorders which include inflammation, oxidative stress, gut microbiome, epigenetics (to do with our genes) and neuro-plasticity (the ability of the brain to change continuously throughout an individual's life). Every one of these pathways are affected by the food we eat. Omega 3 and healthy fats from oily fish, seeds, nuts, olive oil and avocado are anti-inflammatory and sustain neuro-plasticity. Antioxidants, rich in colourful fruit and vegetables combat oxidative stress, inflammation and influence gene expression. We have discussed the gut microbiome already. Conversely, junk food, sugar and processed foods have an adverse effect on all the above over time and an immediate impact on your mood status. Sugar, MSG and many food additives directly impact on your neurotransmitters, knocking them out of whack and sending you into a state of increased stress and anxiety. The amount of stress you feel at any given time is dependent on your circumstances but also on your perception of those circumstances, which can be profoundly influenced by your nutritional status and the other pillars of good health mentioned above.
Covid-19 has shocked and rocked our world. It is normal to feel uneasy and anxious about it. Fortunately, we are adaptable and resilient once we accept our new normal and build a strategy for it. With that in mind, grab a pen, plan your meals, stay calm and carry on cooking!
Researched and Written by Irene :)
If the queues in the supermarkets are anything to go by, there is a lot of eating going on! For most people, our calorific needs have not necessarily increased during this COVID 19 crisis yet the urge to eat has. This phenomenon is nothing new and much of it lies in our evolutionary ancestry in which the human body and subconscious mind have evolved to perceive weight gain as an indicator of improved survival. This was fine and dandy back in the day, when over-eating involved pigging out on extra roots, fruits and vegetables. But now, with our food supply burgeoning with junk foods, the consequence of survival eating may scupper its original objective.
Food brings comfort to us, as it releases dopamine and serotonin into our brains, making us feel instantly better. However, this is short-lived, and as levels fall off again, the urge arises to comfort eat again. How do you tell the difference between emotional hunger and real hunger? Real hunger grows gradually and lasts longer unlike a craving which can come out of the blue or arises to change an emotional state. This is why some people eat when they are sad or anxious. True hunger is a result of a lack of food, no matter what emotional state we may be experiencing. Another good clue to tell the difference is that emotional eating is usually only satisfied by one type of food, such as biscuits, bread, crisps or ice cream for example. True hunger is satisfied with a much wider variety of foods, because the body is screaming for nourishment, and not too fussy from where it comes.
The last two weeks have been extraordinary, the updates on the Coronavirus situation are constantly developing and understandably, feelings of fear and anxiety are high. We are in survival mode and naturally responding to the stress. While eating for sustenance is a good thing, experts say emotionally eating a lot of food with little nutrition can weaken our immune systems and worsen our moods at a time when protecting our bodies and staying positive is particularly important.
One of the simplest ways to avoid eating too many junk foods at this time, is not to buy them. Stick to your ritual of three meals a day, even if your routine has changed and snack only on wholefood, if true hunger arises. Ask yourself “am I about to eat because I’m physically hungry, or because I feel stressed or sad?” If the answer is the latter, good advice is to consider turning to other sources of comfort: breathing exercises, movement, spirituality, social connections (from a distance), hobbies or time in nature, among others.
With many of us now at home, we can spend more time in the kitchen. If you are new to cooking meals from scratch, now is a good opportunity to experiment with flavours and ingredients. Practice making a few homemade meals that you can enjoy making over and over again, long after this crisis passes. Seek real comfort in building on your cooking skills and creating a repertoire of recipes that you and your family will love.
Although many people eat more in anxious times, some people lose their appetite and eat very little, if at all. We can go back to our evolutionary ancestry to understand that stress can shut off appetite and digestion. Yet again, this is a survival instinct to ensure that we can fight or flee from a physical threat, such as a hairy mammoth, without having to pull up on the side of the road for a cheesy snack! This is evident in extremely stressful conditions in which many of our health care workers are finding themselves. Working long hours, under immense pressure with the added call for action required, many will not even feel hungry until well after their shift is over. Under these conditions, the body will release glucose from liver and muscles to keep them going. Fat stored in adipose tissues can also be mobilized for energy. But again, these are short term measures. It is vital that these people are nourished, replenished and allowed to rest and recover between shifts. To digest food properly, we need a relaxed digestive system - warm teas and broths can help your body loosen up after a stressful period, while protein shakes and electrolyte packets provide energy when appetite is low.
For those with children at home, who seem to be grazing non-stop, it is okay if they are grazing on the good stuff. Each morning lay out a little box with their snacks - fruit, veggie sticks, yogurt, popcorn and the occasional sweet thing to put a daily limit on snacking. Kids too are feeling the anxiety and also have that natural inclination to seek out comfort in food. Let them bake their sweet treat and clean up afterwards as the distraction will take their minds off things. Like adults, they too must learn that emotional eating does not fix the emotion but may leave them feeling jittery from too much sugar, adding to anxiety or leave them feeling low (after the sugar crash) intensifying feelings of sadness or loneliness.
These are exceptional times and while it is important to stay informed, do try to limit exposure to all the bad news. Take comfort in routine, in three square meals, in leisure time and self-care. Take comfort too in each other and the exceptional response of our community, local businesses and healthcare workers – “ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine” has never offered so much comfort!
All the best to everyone, Irene x
Stock Up for the Lock Down!
The threat of a lockdown is on the cards as Covid-19 or (novel) Coronavirus wreaks havoc across the globe. With increasing confirmed cases being reported in Ireland on a daily basis, the outlook is quite grim. Reports from our Health Service Executive (HSE), World Health Organization (WHO) and the scientific community acknowledge that we are still in early stages of understanding this new virus fully, but all agree that its modus operandi is similar to that of other Coronaviruses, which are responsible for most common colds. You would have to have your head in the sand if you have not learned about the importance of good hygiene, hand washing and cough/sneeze etiquette and self-isolation but in the midst of panic and stock-piling toilet paper, some practical nutritional measures may easily be overlooked.
In the event of a lockdown, forcing people to stay at home, it is a good time to prepare your shopping list and stock up on the good stuff now! Let’s look at some ingredients to minimize the risk of becoming very ill with this virus, especially for those who are elderly, those who are immuno-compromised or have underlying respiratory vulnerabilities? While we do not have the benefit of scientific studies about nutrition in relation to this specific Covid-19 yet, we do have a wealth of information about strengthening the immune system, supporting the barrier defenses (respiratory and gut linings) and nourishment for convalescing. With this in mind, here are some ideas of what to include in your lockdown grocery list!
Vitamin C foods are top of the list and luckily for us they are plentiful, store well and easy to consume. Source the best quality oranges, mandarins, lemons and kiwis available. Their tough skin protects the vitamin C content inside during transit so make sure there are no bruises or breaks in the skin. Vitamin C has several roles in the human body, one of which is supporting immune function. It is involved in building and maintaining connective tissue and fatty membranes, which forms our barrier defenses of the respiratory and digestive tract. Vitamin C acts as an antioxidant, protecting us from cell damage, builds collagen and mobilizes defensive immune cells to sites of injury and infection. We do not make vitamin C or store it and being a water-soluble vitamin, it dissolves quickly once ingested, with any excess excreted through urine. As such, it is best to consume vitamin C foods in smaller quantities throughout the day rather than having a load in one go. The same can be said for supplement vitamin C – little and often for continued supply.
Stock up on bones from a good butcher to make broth. This age-old remedy for colds and flu has lasted throughout the ages and no doubt will be seen to be effective in this crisis too. Broth warms the throat and sinus passages, killing off viruses and reducing their impact. Full of immune-boosting minerals, zinc, glycine and collagen – broth is nutritious, comforting and easy to digest, making it an ideal tonic for the elderly and sick, who may already have diminished appetites.
Like the broth, warm drinks are vital during a respiratory, viral infection – you can add more power to your tea by steeping a cinnamon quill, cloves, turmeric and fresh ginger in the teapot for at least 5 mins, making a chai-type tea from your usual black tea. Skip the milk as it can be mucus-forming for some and keep this tea on the go to stay hydrated and protected. Check your spice rack and make sure you have a fresh supply of these spices, not forgetting fresh ginger root, which can be kept in the fridge.
Fortunately, onions and garlic store well and can be added to everything from soups, broths, stews and roasts. The key to using these ingredients for an anti-viral impact is to load up, do not hold back – add them in abundance to your lunchtime and evening meals. Studies have indicated that garlic is more effective as an antimicrobial in its raw state, rather than cooked – add some freshly chopped or minced garlic to your dishes when serving, as well as adding it in the cooking. With everyone in the house on lockdown – no one will complain of your garlic breath!
Food staples such as oats, rice, pasta, dried pulses and potatoes keep well too and provide sustenance and calories for recovery. Add in plenty of carrots and sweet potatoes to the stockpile as they can be stored for weeks and are full of betacarotene, necessary for the respiratory linings. There’s a bit of a rush on canned foods right now but beware that much of them are high in salt (dehydrating) and low on nutrition. However, do get a few cans of organic tomatoes, beans and chickpeas for quick add-on to meals as these retain most of their nutrition, are easy to use and are non-perishable.
I have written two articles recently “Kung Flu Fighting” in December 2019, issue 271 and “A Better Way to get Better” in January 2020, issue 275, both of which have loads of tips for choosing and preparing foods during illness and recovery. They are now available to read in the blog page our website. While these articles are not specific to Covid-19, the content is relevant and may help you and the people you are caring for to be nourished and resilient during this crisis.
Ré Nua Natural Health Blog
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