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The safety measures implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as stay-at-home and social distancing orders, have caused many people to experience a decline in their mental health.
Uma Naidoo, MD, director of Nutritional & Metabolic Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of This Is Your Brain On Food, confirms that she has seen an uptick in the number of patients seeking mental health treatment, specifically for depression, anxiety, insomnia and trauma.
“I feel very strongly that the silent pandemic is in mental health,” she says. “Even if it's not something that as many people are talking about.”
And very often, she says, those who are managing mental health conditions turn to food to self-soothe and find emotional comfort.
As a global pioneer and leading voice in nutritional psychiatry and the founder of the first U.S. clinical service in this area, Dr. Naidoo works with patients to improve their mood and mental health using nutrition.
Here, Dr. Naidoo shares how to leverage nutrition to support your mental health, during and beyond COVID-19.
The Gut-Brain Connection
The human microbiome, also known as the gut environment, is a community of bacteria that is healthy for the body. Food affects this gut environment and, in turn, the function of the brain and mood. When good microbes are introduced into this environment through healthy foods, they are broken down into positive substances that feed the body and brain. However, when unhealthy foods are introduced, they break down into negative substances that overcome the good bacteria and create inflammation in the gut—which, in research, has been shown to be the basis of several mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety.
“Simply put, when you're eating unhealthy foods, like processed foods or fast foods, they are more toxic to our body. The bad microbes in the gut start to thrive because they are being fed with the foods that they like and they overcome the good microbes,” Dr. Naidoo says. “When the bacteria balance is disrupted, it can lead to a whole range of diseases.”
Enhancing Mental Health with Nutrition
Often, people who are feeling anxiety or depression may turn to comfort food, which can create discomfort for the brain and exacerbate those pre-existing feelings.
To enhance your mental health, Dr. Naidoo recommends incorporating some of these foods into your diet.
Many vegetables are great sources of fiber, and high-fiber diets have been linked to reduced risk of anxiety, stress and depression due to fiber’s anti-inflammatory effect. Gut inflammation, Dr. Naidoo says, tends to be high in people who suffer from these mental health conditions.
Incorporating more plants into your diet can start with simply tacking on two to three sides of vegetables to every meal, like broccoli, cauliflower or spinach. These can be either fresh or frozen, as long as there’s no added sauce, syrup or sodium in the frozen veggies. Or, start by adding chopped greens to other meals, such as omelets or casseroles.
Probiotics are usually a supplement; however, you can add probiotics to your diet with fermented foods which contain live active cultures that restore good bacteria and microbes to the gut to maintain a healthy gut biome.
Incorporate more fermented foods into your diet with:
- Plain dairy or non-dairy yogurt with live active cultures
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Our brains need fats to survive and function—the key is to choose the healthy fats. Omega-3’s are essential fatty acids. As our bodies can't make them naturally, we have to obtain them through the food we eat. They are incredibly anti-inflammatory which means that they support a healthy brain and reduce symptoms of anxiety.
Find omega 3 fatty acids in:
- Fish such as sock-eye salmon, sardines and mackerel
- Seeds such as flaxseeds, chia seeds and pumpkin seeds
- Nuts such as brazil nuts and walnuts
- Other foods such as avocado and olive oil
This important vitamin is associated with an improved mood, as it plays a role in decreasing inflammation in the brain and protecting neurons. According to Dr. Naidoo, 80% of the daily vitamin D requirement can be acquired by spending 10 minutes in the sun.
Add more vitamin D to your diet by choosing:
- Fortified milk
Spices are a best-kept secret in the nutritional psychiatry world and a hidden superfood, says Dr. Naidoo. Adding spices to meals is not just about boosting flavor—many can also boost antioxidant and inflammatory properties that increase brain health.
Mix these spices into your meals:
- Turmeric with a pinch of black pepper to activate an important ingredient in turmeric called curcumin
Particularly if you experience anxiety and insomnia, having a collection of teas on-hand can make an extraordinary difference in managing mental health.
Some of the best tea varieties to brew include:
- Green, which contains an amino acid called L-theanine that can cross the blood-brain barrier and have an anti-anxiety effect. It has also shown to help people focus, feel a boost of energy and reduce brain fog
- Chamomile, which contains an antioxidant called apigenin that is attributed to anti-inflammatory and calming effects. Add a touch of tart cherry juice if you’re suffering from insomnia. If you’re pregnant, speak with your doctor first
- Herbal teas like lavender and passionflower, which calm and relax the mind and stimulate the brain to reduce feelings of depression
Easy Additions to Your Refrigerator and Pantry
Dr. Naidoo says that one of the keys to making a healthy diet sustainable for the long-term is to make sure that you are well-stocked with easy-to-reach foods that serve your brain and gut health.
“Having healthy snacks available in the house for stressful or busy days can be very helpful,” she says. “And if you’re already busy, you’ll likely reach for whatever is available.”
To use nutrition as a way to enhance your mental health, add these items to your refrigerator or pantry:
- Something sweet—Banana ‘nice-cream,’ an apple with natural almond butter or a piece of extra dark chocolate
- Something salty—Oven-baked kale chips made with avocado oil, salt and pepper
- Something crunchy—1/4 cup almonds, walnuts or pumpkin seeds
- Something quick—Homemade blend of walnuts, seeds and dark chocolate chips
And if purchasing fresh produce sounds like a daunting task, Dr. Naidoo confirms that frozen produce is just as good at delivering healthy nutrients to your gut and brain. Canned vegetables, like green beans lose their nutrition value; however, canned beans and chickpeas are nutritional, inexpensive, plant-based proteins that you can add to your diet.
Above all, Dr. Naidoo recommends that patients seek help when experiencing a decline in mental health. “A healthy diet can certainly help, but it’s one part of a whole treatment,” she says. “Often, I work with patients to pair a healthy diet with other therapies, such as medication and therapy.”
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