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 :)
Ré Nua Natural Health Blog
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