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6 Nutrition tips for Mental Health – for Lockdown and Beyond

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The gut and brain are connected.

This realisation comes to me after drinking a particularly strong coffee on an empty stomach. I spend  the better part of an hour “bouncing off the walls” – hyper, so to speak. My heart is pounding, my limbs tremor and no matter how hard I try, I can’t keep the usual anxious thoughts at bay.

What’s wrong? Are you having a heart attack?

You’re acting weird, people are looking at you.

It was foolish mistake, and I berated myself afterwards.

If you live with anxiety then you know to avoid caffeine, as it triggers the production of cortisol (the stress hormone). Yet, after this experience, I found myself questioning how nutrition affects mental wellbeing in general. We know stimulants like caffeine have an impact, but what about normal foodstuffs?  

Because the truth is, I often feel “wired” after eating, especially if I’ve had a stodgy meal like a pizza or pasta. This can be a nuisance when I’m writing because it affects my concentration. I find that I can barely sit still, let alone focus. Then after the hour has passed, I feel sluggish and lethargic. Was this a coincidence?

The gut-brain connection

I did a bit of research, and found that the stomach and brain are indeed connected. According to Harvard Health, a troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. In fact, the very thought of eating can release the stomach’s juices, long before the food is even introduced to your system. Some foods have more nutritional value than others and, in my experience, can have a more positive impact on how I am feeling (and on my waistline).

This adds gravitas to the slogan: “You are what you eat.”

Anxiety may be exacerbated when serotonin (a compound needed to keep the brain functioning normally) is lacking in the body. This information is nothing new. However, as self-confessed gut obsessive and mental health author Chloe Brotheridge tells me, serotonin is not just manufactured in the brain, but in the digestive tract too. In fact, most of the body’s supply is found in the gut where it regulates bowel function.  Scientists have found that microbiota in the digestive tract plays a role in regulating production.

Therefore, it seems to make sense to keep our gut happy!

The temptation to make bad food choices in lockdown

During the coronavirus lockdown, the urge to consume lots of junk food such as frozen pizza, pastries and ice cream is STRONG. After all, we’re all feeling fed-up and junk food feels like a treat and a short term solution to long term boredom. (This may explain my current raspberry ice cream addiction. Seriously, my husband has to ration it.)

However processed foods and a high sugar intake can decrease the amount of good bacteria in your gut and can increase inflammation.

The temptation to consume more alcohol than usual is also strong. For me, it’s an instant stress reliever, not to mention a social lubricator. Unfortunately, alcohol also depletes serotonin, which would explain why our nerves feel “raw” the morning after one too many. Basically, it messes with the chemistry in the brain and can increase anxiety.

After more than two glasses of wine, I’m guaranteed to wake up worrying that I’ve either killed someone or posted a naked photo on Instagram. (For the record, I have never done either.)

Tips for mindful consumption

So, what’s the solution? Am I suggesting that we cut out all junk food and booze entirely? Of course not! IF I CAN’T HAVE MY GLASS OF WHITE AND RASPBERRY MAGNUM THEN I’LL RUN INTO A WALL! The key, as is often the case with these kind of things, is moderation.

  1. Be mindful of how much you drink. Indulging is fine but try and have at least three alcohol-free nights per week. If you (like me) struggle with moderation, then try buying miniature bottles of wine, rather than trusting yourself with a full 750ml.
  2. Limit junk food consumption. The same applies here. Pizza twice a week is fine. Pizza every night of the week is NOT fine! Think of your poor gut!
  3. Plan ahead and have alternative healthier treats on hand. The key is to make sure that said treat is something that you’ll actually enjoy, rather than simply being healthy. Otherwise it’ll feel like a punishment. Broccoli lollies anyone? NO THANKS! Click here for tasty recipe ideas.
  4. Drink plenty of water. This is obvious, but you’d be surprised at how often people (myself included!) forget about this. Water aids digestion, supports gut health and helps with waste elimination.
  5. Try and eat foods that contain omega three, a fatty acid that supports brain function. Research by Harvard Health showed that consumption of omega three can help with symptoms of anxiety. Aim for foods such as oily fish, walnuts, spinach and chia seeds.
  6. Keep an eye on the caffeine intake. Remember the cortisol connection and be mindful. I also make sure to avoid coffee on an empty stomach!

When in doubt, or if you feel tempted, just think of your brain resting happily in your stomach. Is it worth the upset for two minutes of sugary goodness?

I’ll get back to you on that…

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