The coronavirus pandemic is having a huge impact on our mental health. More and more of us are struggling to maintain our mental wellbeing since the onset of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. The latest surveys highlight that around 1 in 5 (21%) adults experienced some form of depression in early 2021 (27 January to 7 March); an increase since November 2020 (19%) and more than double that observed before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic (10%).
If you are struggling with feelings of depression, loss of motivation and enthusiasm, or if you have difficulty finding joy in everyday life seeking professional help and support is vital. But one thing we can all do is look at our diet and lifestyle too.
Our diet and lifestyle can have a profound effect on our mood and research reveals there’s a direct link between what we eat and how we feel. In fact, studies suggest people with depression often make food choices that can actually make them feel worse. Fortunately, there are many foods that can help to improve your mood and motivation. These foods provide you with the right nutrients or cofactors the body needs to produce neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) like serotonin and dopamine that give up a natural lift.
We are all aware that certain foods can boost our mood while others appear to have the opposite effect. For example, you will probably know that if you eat a sweet snack, such as a sugary muffin or packet of sweets, you’ll get a spike of energy, soon followed by a crashing low. Sugar highs and lows are just one-way food can affect our mood. Skipping meals or not eating enough can also result in falling blood sugar levels which can make us feel ‘hangry’ and irritable.
There are three key neurotransmitters involved in boosting mood – dopamine, adrenaline and serotonin. To keep these neurotransmitters in balance your body requires essential amino acids (from protein rich foods) and certain nutrients required for their production (e.g copper, iron, zinc, B vitamins and magnesium) – focusing on foods rich in these nutrients can help support optimal levels. If you are following a more plant based diet or are vegetarian here are some top foods to include in your diet.
Known for their heart healthy fats, avocados are packed with monounsaturated fats known to lower inflammation (inflammation can disrupt levels of mood boosting neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin). Avocados are packed with tyrosine, an amino acid that helps the body produce dopamine which helps increase feelings of reward and motivation. They also provide plenty of B vitamins including folate that helps reduce homocysteine, an amino acid linked to anxiety and depression.
These medicinal mushrooms are ideal if you are struggling with stress and low mood. Known as the “queen of mushrooms” due to their powerful adaptogenic which means they can help your body cope with ongoing stress. Available as powders or capsules. Other mushrooms for brain health include Cordyceps, Lion’s mane and Chaga mushrooms.
The protein in eggs, particularly the yolks can significantly boost your blood plasma levels of tryptophan and tyrosine – the building blocks to mood neurotransmitters. They also contain choline and omega-3 fatty acids, which can improve memory and may reduce anxiety too. Yogurt and Kefir Probiotic rich foods like yogurt and kefir are a must for a healthy brain. Packed with beneficial bacteria researchers have found probiotics can help fight depression and anxiety. It is thought that bacteria may decrease inflammation in the body and increase levels of tryptophan.
Bananas contain the amino acid tryptophan as well as vitamins A, B6 and C, fibre, potassium, phosphorous, iron and carbohydrate. Mood-boosting carbohydrates aid in the absorption of tryptophan in the brain, while vitamin B6 helps convert the tryptophan into the mood-lifting hormone serotonin. This helps to boost your mood and also aids sleep. Cottage Cheese. Dairy foods like cottage cheese are protein rich foods that provide amino acids including tyrosine, which is essential for the production of dopamine. It also provides a number of nutrients including B vitamins, choline, zinc, and copper. to support healthy neurotransmitter production.
Another reason to eat a little chocolate – just make sure it’s the dark variety. There are over 300 naturally-occurring chemicals in chocolate, and some of them can affect the human brain via the release of particular neurotransmitters which affect how we think and feel. For example, phenylethylamine is sometimes called “the love drug”, because it arouses feelings similar to those that occur when one is in love.
Berries are loaded with antioxidants including anthocyanidins, known to boost brain function and promote brain and nervous system health. Berries are also low in sugar and calories and packed with fibre to help balance blood sugar and energy levels.
Flaxseed & Chia seeds
Both these little seeds provide omega-3 fatty acids, which have been known to be mood lifting and possibly help combat depression. Various studies have found that increasing the omega-3 fatty acids in your diet can aid in preventing low mood and depression. Being rich in protein and fibre too they are perfect for balancing blood sugar levels – dips in blood glucose can lead to low mood and irritability.
Optimising mood with foods
Serotonin, one of our mood boosting chemicals isn’t really found in foods, but tryptophan is. Foods high in protein, iron, riboflavin, and vitamin B-6 all tend to contain large amounts of this amino acid including many of the foods mentioned above. The best way to boost serotonin production is to include a little carbohydrate at the same time.
Carbohydrates cause the body to release more insulin, which enhances absorption of tryptophan which can then be converted into serotonin – yogurt with a banana or oats for example is a perfect combination. Alternatively eat some cottage cheese and baked potato.
Remember too that other nutrients are involved in boosting your mood including vitamin D, omega-3 fats, zinc and the amino acid, tyrosine. So include plenty of omega 3 rich foods like flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts. Vitamin D from food is limited as we get this mainly by exposure to sunlight. Plant based foods like fortified products and mushrooms contain a little so include these too.
Getting outdoors and exposing yourself to bright light is an effective natural way to boost levels. Exercise has also been shown to increase serotonin and dopamine levels – another reason to include exercise daily.