A Dietitians Guide to Reduce Stress During Covid-19
I write this post during a time of uncertainty that I know brings new found anxiety or feelings of unease into many of your lives.
One thing I know for certain is that what we eat DOES play a role in both how we feel and in our immune health.
Social isolation, uncertainty with the economy (as a start up CEO and entrepreneur I understand the implications of this as much as anybody else), and concern over loved ones health and wellbeing are just the tip of the iceberg for elements that can lead anyone to experience feelings anywhere between deep concern to paralysing anxiety.
There will be no outlandish claims made here that a specific food will prevent or cure you from a viral infection, but there are foods rich in specific nutrients that are known to help alleviate and prevent anxiety and depression, reduce inflammation in the body, and ultimately setting your immune system up to be as strong as it can be to help you put your best foot forward in the current situation we globally find ourselves in.
As someone who has focused for almost a decade on reviewing and educating others on both the connection between diet and mood, together with the gut:brain connection and the role prebiotics play, I know that time and time again, the Mediterranean diet together with specific gut healthy nutrients have been shown to successfully support a more positive mood.
If I had to prioritise, here are my top 6 nutrients to focus, and a list of food options to help you attain these nutrients, even in times of limited food accessibility.
2. Vitamin D
3. Omega 3s
4. Low glycemic load carbohydrates
6. Antioxidants and polyphenols
...Lets go into some more depth on this:
Often referred to as the calming mineral, Magnesium assists with the conversion of 5 hydroxytryptophan into serotonin, one of the forms you find tryptophan in within the body whilst serotonin is being produced.
Many people these days are unknowingly deficient in magnesium which has the potential to negatively affect your ability to boost your mood naturally through increased serotonin production.
For this reason, ensuring that you consume adequate dietary sources of magnesium is essential to promoting a positive mood.
Some food sources include: whole-grains such as oats (oat bran) and wheat-bran, broccoli, raspberries (buy fresh and freeze to extend shelf life, or buy frozen), nuts and seeds (e.g. pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, brazil nuts, peanuts, almonds), natural nut or seed butters are dense sources that are often easy to incorporate into the diet, beans (e.g. soy (tofu, edamame etc) and kidney beans), bananas (freeze and use in a smoothie), and cocoa / dark chocolate (enjoy!).
2. Vitamin D
Research has continually been uncovering how important a role Vitamin D plays in the maintenance of optimal physical and mental health.
Although the exact mechanisms of action are still being uncovered, what can be understood is that Vitamin D deficiency appears to be associated with a number of inflammatory conditions, including Type II Diabetes, Arthritis and even Cardiovascular Disease. It has been found that Vitamin D may affect neurotransmitters and inflammatory markers, which could be the connection that helps explain this association.
One study performed was able to show a clear chain of events at a cellular level that explained how Vitamin D can interfere with the normal cascade of events that leads to an inflammatory response, and an increase in inflammatory markers within the body. This study showed a dose dependent relationship in regards to Vitamin D levels and the associated immune response.
Another study proved that even within a healthy population, low levels of Vitamin D negatively affected inflammation and the body’s immune response. The study showed that blood levels of one of the inflammatory markers were significantly increased in women who had insufficient Vitamin D levels.
Given the connection between dietary factors, inflammation, and mood, it makes sense to try and minimize any potential nutritional deficiencies that could lead to an increase in inflammation within the body.
In a study of almost 12600 people over a four year period, it was found that higher blood levels of Vitamin D were associated with significantly decreased risk of depression, and in particular, this association was found to be strongest in those people whom had had a previous history of depression.
This may show that if you have previously experienced any sort of diagnosed depression in your life, having your Vitamin D levels checked to ensure that you are not below the recommended levels could be beneficial at minimizing the likelihood of this being a potential factor compounding your current mental wellbeing state.
Although sunlight is often our best option for Vitamin D, for those that are not in areas that permit this at this time, some easily accessible food options include: canned fish and eggs, and although offering the not quite as well absorbed Vitamin D2 plant based version of Vitamin D, high vitamin D mushrooms are an option for those who follow a vegan diet.
3. Omega 3's
Considering the brain and nervous system have a large percentage of their composition made from fats, it should be no surprise that the consumption of foods rich in healthy fats can be of benefit to help with healthy brain function and optimal mental performance.
The essential fatty acid, omega 3, is well understood as playing a beneficial role in reducing inflammation within the body.
There are three different types of omega 3’s that are commonly focused on:
DHA- docosahexaenoic acid: These are long chain fatty acids that are fluid and flexible, they make up part of the cell membranes of our brains cells, and play a role in the transmission of chemical signals from cell to cell. This is the main type of omega 3 that is usually promoted for heart health. DHA can be found in fatty, cold-water fish such as salmon, tuna, herring, sardines, mackerel and halibut. They are also found in vegan micro-algae sources from which are thought to be where they actually originate in the food system, to begin with. The microalgae source in recent years has started being used in fortified foods such as eggs, yogurts and milks to boost their DHA content too.
EPA- Eicosapentaenoic acid is also a long chain fatty acid. It can also be found in the aforementioned fish, and plays a different role in the body by helping to reduce inflammation. Some EPA can also be converted to DHA in the body if the body needs it.
EPA is the essential fatty acid that is more prominently associated with improving your mood and therefore is the key focus when it comes to consuming omega 3 fatty acids to prevent depression and elevate mood.
ALA: Alpha-linolenic acid is the plant version of omega 3, which is found in the form of a shorter chain fatty acid.
ALA can be found in hemp seeds, sacha inchi seeds, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, as well as in small amounts within some dark green leafy vegetables, including kale and spinach. Only a very small percentage of ALA is actually converted into EPA (around 6 per cent), which can then be converted into DHA (around 3.8 per cent).
For this reason, ALA is not as potent for mood elevation or heart health as EPA and DHA coming from the alternative sources. Often foods that are fortified with omega 3’s such as breads, table spreads and beverages have ALA added to them (not always DHA or EPA). It is important to look at the labels to determine what the source of omega 3’s are so that you can determine whether you are obtaining the more bioavailable long chain essential fatty acids or not.
Another type of long chain omega 3 that is less well researched is Docosapentaenoic acid (DPA), which is the predominant omega 3 found in lean red meat. This type of fat may play a similar role to EPA and DHA in relation to heart health.
Omega 3s are found most densely in deep-sea oily fish such as salmon, herring, and sardines, as well as in smaller doses in shrimp, scallops and tuna (buying fresh, frozen or canned fish is a suitable option for those who include these foods in their diets). They also can be found in a less bioavailable form in plant foods such as walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, sacha inchi seeds and dark green leafy vegetables. An exception to this rule are plant based micro-algae omega-3’s which are actually in the form of the highly bio-available omega-3 similar to those found in the animal based foods mentioned previously.
4. Low glycemic load carbohydrates
Low glycemic index (GI) carbohydrates result in a slow and steady rise in one’s blood glucose levels, and when there is glucose present in the blood, the body releases insulin to remove this glucose.
Although we do not want large amounts of insulin constantly circulating in the blood, when a small amount of insulin is present, this actually helps the body’s production of serotonin.
Insulin does this by promoting tryptophan, an amino acid, to move across the blood brain barrier, allowing it to be used for serotonin production.
There is very mixed research about how effective this process actually is through diet alone without tryptophan supplementation.
However, due to the well-rounded benefits of consuming a low glycemic index food rich diet, it is still beneficial to stick with this style of eating.
You may have seen numerous websites that promote the consumption of tryptophan-rich foods to boost serotonin, however most of the available scientific data points in the direction that dietary sources of tryptophan will not adequately increase serotonin production to impart these positive effects due to the counter interactions from other amino acids that compete for absorption and are present in larger volumes than tryptophan post a protein rich meal.
This includes the long chain amino acids: valine, tyrosine, leucine, isoleucine and phenylalanine, which are all taken up in precedence to tryptophan.
However, a carbohydrate-rich and protein-poor diet can stimulate the uptake of tryptophan into the brain and promote serotonin production.
This is because consuming carbohydrates leads to the release of insulin, which promotes the uptake of tryptophan into the brain.
The mechanism of this action is through increasing the ratio of tryptophan to the other amino acids that are present to enter the brain, by promoting the other amino acids to be up taken into the skeletal muscles, and allowing tryptophan to enter the brain without competition.
For this reason, consuming low glycemic index and low glycemic load foods is a suitable option to ensure your body has the required hormonal changes it needs to achieve the desired tryptophan uptake, without the negative implications of having too high circulating insulin typically experience from refined and high glycemic large carbohydrate loads.
With the gut:brain connection having a wealth of research to support its important role in our mental health, including our understanding that poor gut health can lead to the release of inflammatory molecules in the body, and depression and anxiety being known to be conditions not only from a chemical imbalance but also of inflammation within the body;
Together with the knowledge that the immune system is predominantly found within the gut - It is with reasonable understanding that the key fuel source for the diverse bacteria within the gut, also known as prebiotics, would play a vital piece in the story for both positive mental wellbeing together with strengthening your immune system.
Prebiotics are defined by the Global Prebiotic Association as "a nutritional product and/or ingredient selectively utilized in the microbiome producing health benefits”
The specific bacteria type that are typically targeted by prebiotics are Lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, with positive changes in bifidobacteria the most commonly seen.
In most cases, the prebiotics that are fermented by the bacteria in the colon lead to the production of beneficial short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that have direct, and indirect, health benefits.
Some of the health benefits from consuming prebiotics include:
Reducing inflammatory pathways
Enhancing nutrient absorption such as calcium and magnesium, and
Strengthening your immune system
In recent times prebiotics have also been found to have potential benefits to sleep, which is a known important facet to supporting your immune health, and fighting viral infections.
Although many of the densest sources of prebiotics are often found in less commonly consumed foods such as chicory root and dandelion greens, there are more easily incorporated foods that you can weave into your diets in situations such as we find ourselves in now, including roasting and then cooling potatoes or pasta (you can reheat once you have allowed to cool once and still attain benefits), overnight oats or raw oats used in energy balls, incorporating onion and garlic into dishes, consuming legume based pastas, as well as blending in green banana flour or a prebiotic supplement into a smoothie.
Consuming a variety of prebiotics is key to attaining the well rounded benefits they can provide you, and for this reason, aim to not only include one of these foods, or take a prebiotic supplement that only offers one type of prebiotic, but rather go for variety in foods and/or supplements that offer a blend of prebiotics.
Prebiotics are one of the most efficient vehicles when it comes to attaining diverse benefits from just one nutrient.
6. Antioxidants and polyphenols
Last but certainly not least are antioxidants and polyphenols, the powerhouses that reduce inflammation in the body, play a supportive role in so many of our bodies wellbeing systems, and more recently some have been shown to support gut health via their own prebiotic activity.
As a key element of the Mediterranean diet, an eating pattern that has been shown to benefit mood no doubt due to the blend of incorporating many of the above mentioned nutrients together with offering an abundance of naturally occurring antioxidants and/or polyphenolic compounds, is advised.
If you are house-bound and do not feel it is possible to continue to purchase fresh deep coloured fruits and vegetables for any reason, additional options to attain these nutrients include Vitamin E and selenium rich nuts and seeds such as sunflower seeds, almonds, brazil nuts, as well as other healthy fat rich foods such as avocado and extra virgin olive oil. I would advise to continue consuming deep coloured fruits and vegetables - and just because there are no frozen fruits or vegetable options left at the grocery store does not mean you can not purchase fresh berries or vegetables, place them in the freezer, and add into a smoothie or dish when you are ready to use them.
A summarised version of some suggested meals that put the above information into practice if you were to use foods that are able to be stored for a week or more at home could include:
Breakfast: Overnight oats with mixed nuts and seeds; smoothie using frozen berries, prebiotic powder and a teaspoon of nut butter; eggs, packaged low glycemic load pancake mix (typically found including almond and coconut flour) blended with eggs or water and topped with nut butter.
Lunch/Dinner: Turkish baked eggs / shakshuka eggs in a pan, canned tuna or salmon pasta salad, roasted in extra virgin olive oil and then cooled potatoes alongside some broccoli and a protein of your choice, legume based pasta with a bottled tomato pasta based sauce; tofu stir fry.
Snacks: High fiber wrap with nut butter, frozen berries, dark chocolate and nut mix, home made prebiotic boosted muffins or slices or edamame beans
The above is just a handful of ideas to spark your creativity, and you can obviously take these as a base and work them to fit with however you would typically prefer to eat.
As my personal gift to all you reading this, if you are interested in learning more about how your dietary choices impact your mood, taking a deep dive into how your gut health is connected to your mental wellbeing and immunity, and to see all the references used in this post, make sure you take a look at the Good Mood Food Guide and Prebiotic Manual I wrote here.
If you insert the code COVID19 at checkout- you can download these two e-books as a bundle (value $34.95) for FREE as my gift to you to help you through this challenging time.
And if you are interested in the full Uplift Food GOLD bundle which includes both of these e-books together with 5 X 7 day Good Mood Food meal plans, a recommended product list together with a full pack of the Uplift Food Daily Uplifter prebiotic psychobiotic supplement powder to help you attain a few of these mood specific nutrients, including prebiotics, Vitamin D and Magnesium, all in the one tasty vanilla easy to use powder, it is my sincere pleasure to extend a 75% off discount code GOLD75 that you can insert at checkout so that you can actually attain the benefits recommended in this post immediately and with ease.
I hope this post has proven useful and enlightening, and you can see that there are ways that you can feel more empowered in times of distress and uncertainty by first and foremost having the knowledge you need to be able to implement strategies to your every day life that help you get your mind working on your side.
I hope you now feel confident turning to Uplift Food an myself as a voice of reason and trusted sources of knowledge when it comes to nourishing your gut and body through food to ultimately feel empowered to put your best foot forward.
In good gut health,
Team Uplifters - and this time specifically, Kara (Founding Uplifter and Australian Registered Dietitian)