Eat Yourself Happy by Dr. Sarah Schenker

Female happy eating healthy food

In these strange new times, it is no surprise that many of us will be experiencing feelings of gloom, mood swings and frustration. Psychologists say it’s normal to feel more tired during lockdown, even though you’re doing less and daily tiredness can lead to a downward spiral of chronic fatigue and lack of motivation. It’s certainly tempting to invest in a large tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and crawl back under your duvet.

But it’s worth remembering that what you eat actually plays a vital role in how you feel, so while chocolate ice cream might lift your mood, it is most likely to be only be temporary, followed by a big guilt trip. There’s no quick-fix for the ‘lockdown blues’, but a healthy diet and daily exercise can help to lift a low mood and boost wellbeing.

Consider ways of incorporating the following foods and nutrients into your diet to balance your mood and increase vitality:

Low GI foods

Fluctuations in blood sugar levels are associated with changes in mood and energy and are affected by what we eat. After eating sugary foods or refined carbs, blood sugar levels can rise rapidly which may cause feelings of stress and anxiety, only to crash soon after, which can then leave you feeling lethargic and in a low mood. Choose foods that have a low GI, which means the food contains a type of carbohydrate that releases it’s energy slowly, keeping blood sugar levels steady and maintaining a more balanced, calm mood. Good choices include wholegrain rice, oats, peanuts, apples and berries.

High fibre foods

High fibre foods also help to maintain stable blood sugar levels, which can help to control appetite and reduce cravings for sugary and fatty snacks between meals. Feeling more in control of your appetite can reduce stress levels and help you make healthier choices at meal times. Try wholegrains such as quiona, new potatoes, kidney beans and green leafy veg.

Good sources of protein

Protein provides tryptophan, which is an amino acid that is needed to make several important hormones including the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin plays a role in fighting anxiety, promoting good moods and producing the sleep hormone melatonin. Tryptophan also helps the body to produce important B-vitamin niacin needed for good mental health and prevent depression. Foods high in tryptophan include turkey and pumpkin seeds.

Healthy fats

Omega-3 fatty acids are vital for good mental health, brain function, energy production, oxygen transfer and immunity. Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, contain the 2 long chain omega 3 fats known as EPA and DHA, which can help to reduce inflammation, high levels of which may be linked to depression, while walnuts provide an essential form of omega fat that can be converted into EPA and DHA. While we usually think of saturated fat as unhealthy, some types of saturates (known as medium chain TGs) have health benefits. These type of saturates are found in coconut oil and can support the thyroid gland and the nervous system, both of which are important for maintaining energy levels and a positive mood.

Vitamins

Energy, appetite, mood, weight and body temperature are all governed by hormones produced by the thyroid gland. Thyroid hormones affect metabolism, and an imbalance can produce a wide variety of symptoms, including low mood and fatigue. Vitamins needed for the healthy production of thyroid hormones include including vitamins A (found in carrots, butternut squash and mangoes) , C (citrus fruit, watercress, peppers and berries) and E (avocados and broccoli). Another important vitamin is B6 which is needed for the production of the sleep hormone, melatonin which aids good sleep patterns and improves mood. Add sunflower seeds, pinto beans and tuna to your shopping list.

Plant substances

Many foods contain plant substances; while not essential for health, they nonetheless have great benefits to mental health. Chickpeas contain substances known as phytoestrogens, which can help to balance hormones such as testosterone (found in both men and women). When the level of this hormone rises, mood can be affected and increase feelings of stress and anxiety. The phytoestrogens help to stimulate the production of another hormones called sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG), which binds testosterone and prevents excess levels circulating in the blood. Ginger contains a potent antioxidant, gingerol, which helps neutralize the harmful chemicals our bodies produce when we experience stress. Ginger can help calm feelings of anxiety and settle a nervous stomach. Beetroots contain a nutrient known as betaine, which can improve the production of the natural mood enhancing serotonin, while chilli peppers contain an active component called capsaicin. Capsaicin is what makes chili pepper so hot and causes the brain to secret endorphins which causes a temporary lift in mood.

Water

As part of its body functions, water contributes to the maintenance of normal brain functions including perceiving, thinking, remembering, as well as feeling emotions and exerting control over our environment. Scientific studies have investigated the effects of dehydration and have found that even at a low level (not enough to feel thirsty) it can impact negatively on mood. Above 2 percent body dehydration, it was found that mood and feelings become altered, including fatigue and perceived exertion, tension, confusion, anger and emotional state. Optimise your hydration by drinking around 2 litres of water throughout the day in small regular amounts.

5 top tips to boost mood and wellbeing

  1. Don’t ‘treat yourself’ with food. Try to ‘treat’ yourself in other ways –enjoy a hot soak in the bath, pamper yourself or enjoy some quiet time with a good book.
  2. Get plenty of natural light. Although we are in lockdown, we are allowed to exercise, so whether it’s a walk, run or cycle, go outside and stay safe.
  3. Include slow-releasing energy foods. Resist the temptation to make frequent visits to your fridge while you’re at home.  Try to include low GI foods in your diet everyday such as beans, pulses, dried fruits and nuts.
  4. Stick to regular mealtimes. Include plenty of high fibre, high protein foods at each meal to help you feel fuller for longer and avoid boredom eating between meals.
  5. Snack on foods such as pumpkin seeds, to give your body the building blocks to make feel-good mood booster serotonin which will help you keep your cool at this stressful time.

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