The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a physical toll on many people, with some still dealing with symptoms many months after their infection.
But mental health may be as great a victim of this pandemic as physical health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a survey found that 41% of adults had at least one symptom of anxiety or depression related to COVID-19. In fact, results suggest a tripling of anxiety disorders compared with 2019.
Medication and psychotherapy do help treat such mood diseases, but they may not completely eliminate symptoms. That is why the MoodFood program was started at Vrije University in the Netherlands. Researchers there formed a consortium with nine European countries to research nutritional therapies for mental health. They found that diets high in processed foods caused a greater chance of depression, while whole-food menus decreased it.
Harvard nutritional psychiatrist Dr. Uma Naidoo also studies food and supplements to treat anxiety and depression. Her book, “This is Your Brain on Food,” is considered Harvard’s MoodFood manual.
Results of this research suggest certain foods help the brain heal through a gut-microbe system reset that influences the brain’s anatomy and neurochemistry. The Netherlands and Harvard researchers, along with some in Australia, suggest a modified Mediterranean diet to promote anti-inflammation and gut-microbe health.
Such a menu is rich in plants and includes a variety of colorful vegetables and fruits as well as whole grains, beans and peas. The fiber in these foods contains prebiotics that help the gut grow good bacteria. The different colors — yellow, orange, red, purple and green — each contain specific antioxidants that decrease inflammation of the gut and brain.
According to the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, low-carbohydrate diets like the paleo and keto diets can promote depression, due to limiting fuel for happy brain-chemical production. The authors suggest low-glycemic foods, like beans, peas, whole grains and some vegetables, have a longer lasting effect on brain chemistry and thus promote energy and better mood. By comparison, high-glycemic foods like sugary items produce a blood-sugar rush followed by a reactive low blood-sugar, and a return to a depressed mood.
Many vitamins in these foods are anti-inflammatory, including vitamins A and C. Richest sources include bell peppers, citrus fruits, kiwi, broccoli, winter squash, sweet potatoes, white potatoes and mangoes. They can keep the gut functioning optimally, which is important since it produces the majority of serotonin the brain needs. A vitamin C supplement may also be useful.
Whole grains — such as whole wheat, oats, barley, wild and brown rice, and quinoa — contain vast amounts of B vitamins like thiamin, riboflavin, B6, B12 and folate, micronutrients vital for brain function. Again a B-vitamin complex supplement may be helpful.
Adding Omega-3-rich, cold-water fish to this diet is also anti-inflammatory. Other sources of these fats include flax seed, canola oil, Omega-3 eggs, chia seeds, soybeans, walnuts and game meat. According to Harvard University, at least 30 Omega-3 fat studies have shown promise for treating mood disorders.
For those who dislike fish, a fish oil supplement may be useful. The recommended 2,000 mg per day seems to be the optimal level to ease anxiety symptoms, according to a review study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Even better than fish oil, krill oil and fish roe supplements appear to have similar benefits with better transport across the blood brain barrier.
Other supplements that show promise for treating anxiety and depression include theanine, curcumin, vitamin D, chamomile and magnesium.
The gut is home to about 40 trillion microorganisms and is the largest endocrine organ in the body. By communicating with the brain, the digestive tract plays an important role in mental health. This nutritional system can regulate neurochemicals that can benefit mood.
Yes, food can be your medicine, And supplements may help. Nutritional psychiatry is the wave of the future. Let your dietitian nutritionist show you the way to leverage these powerful tools.