Kiwis are self isolating due to COVID-19 and many of us probably would have never imagined something like this would happen in our lifetimes. The rapid evolution of this viral pandemic is scary and hard to comprehend. The effects of COVID-19 have changed our routines and ways of life. But this doesn’t mean we should avoid doing the things which help us stay well and keep us thinking positively. Everything we put into our body affects our well-being in many ways and good nutrition can help boost mood, reduce anxiety and depression and therefore keep us feeling on top of things in times of stress.
 
It’s at these tense times that good nutrition is very important. Read on to discover the best foods to reduce stress and boost mood, how the Mediterranean diet can help and to learn more about the biology behind the gut-to-brain connection and how it affects emotions.
Fat and Sugar Cravings
It’s been another stressful day, stuck at home, or working from home with the family in the background. The kids are arguing, they have the sound of whatever they’re doing on full blast, and you are trying to host a virtual meeting for work. On impulse (to make yourself feel better) you reach for a chocolate bar, or a bag of chips which you have conveniently stockpiled. Before you know it you have eaten the whole lot. And at least, temporarily, you may feel better.
 
Unfortunately when we are feeling tense we often reach for all the most unhelpful foods, or ‘comfort’ foods that we can.
 
Stress can affect food preferences. Numerous studies (mostly on animals) have shown that physical or emotional distress increases the intake of food high in fat, sugar, or both. High cortisol levels, in combination with high insulin levels, may be responsible. Other research suggests that ghrelin, a “hunger hormone,” may have a role.
 
Once ingested, fat- and sugar-filled foods seem to have a feedback effect that inhibits activity in the parts of the brain that produce and process stress and related emotions. So part of our stress-induced craving for those foods may be that they counteract stress.
 
Stress can also cause us to drink more alcohol, and alcohol decreases our inhibitions, which can often lead us to say regretful things, affecting the emotional climate around us.
 
Here are some foods to try to help combat stress.
Try Going Mediterranean While Self Isolating
While you can’t visit the Med at this time, you can enjoy the benefits of a Mediterranean-style diet. Compounds that are found in high amounts in the Mediterranean diet are linked to lower rates of depression. These are nutrients such as:
 
  • omega-3 fatty acids
  • vitamin D
  • folate
  • anti-oxidants
  • polyphenols
  • plant-based protein
 
What does the Mediterranean diet consist of?
 
  • plenty of vegetables
  • fruit
  • whole grains
  • beans and pulses
  • nuts and seeds
  • good quality olive oil
  • low intake of dairy products (mainly yoghurt and some cheeses)
  • low-to-moderate amounts of dairy products, fish, and poultry
  • very little red meat
  • eggs up to four times a week
  • low-to-moderate amounts of wine

An added bonus is that a diet following these guidelines also tends to deliver good amounts of the nutrients needed to support your immune system.

Foods to Avoid

Several studies have shown that people who follow a western diet, which typically is high in refined and processed foods, are more likely to have major depression or persistent mild depression.

2010 study showed that women who ate unhealthy western-style diets had more psychological symptoms. The foods that these participants were eating included:

  • processed foods
  • fried foods
  • refined grains, such as white bread
  • sugary products
  • beer

Interestingly it’s these unhealthful dietary patterns that typically lead to obesity, diabetes, and other physical health problems. These conditions can also contribute to poor mental health.

Your Gut and Emotions
Have you been getting those “gut feelings”, or “butterflies in your stomach” while watching the news lately? Your gastrointestinal tract is directly connected to your emotions, and that this is the foundation of what we call the Gut-Brain Axis. Sadness, anger, anxiety, joy — these feelings (and others) can trigger symptoms in the gut and, increasingly, we are discovering that what is going on in the gut is affecting your brain and your mood.
 
Stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression. That’s because the brain and the gastrointestinal (GI) system are intimately connected. This two-way communication system has been called the Gut-Brain Axis, but more recently it’s been termed the “Microbiome-Gut-Brain Axis”.
 
A dysfunctional or imbalanced microbiome can potentially affect your mood and even your perceptions of the world and the clarity of your thoughts. And it could also be the cause of anxiety, and even a negative outlook on life.
 
Even more reason to make sure you are continuing to eat a balanced diet during self isolation.

 

We are all in the midst of a tense and uncertain time. If we look after our bodies through good nutrition, not only can we support our immune system to be the best it can be, but we will also be in a much better stead to take good care of our emotional health.