Food to beat the lockdown blues
The lockdown has caused anxiety and stress for many of us. Worries about our health, our jobs, the welfare of elderly relatives or the mental health of children and teens can lead to stress, worry and disrupted sleep.
And, while it may be tempting to try to make yourself feel better by spending lockdown on the sofa with the number of Deliveroo on speed dial, the truth is, if you eat better, you feel better. A number of scientific studies have identified a range of nutrients as having positive effects on stress and its symptoms such as anxiety and insomnia.
For example, in a South African study of 200 insomniacs, 95% of those taking magnesium supplements reported improvements in their sleep. Other nutrients, such as the amino acid glutamine and omega 3 fats are also the subject of much interest as potential mood elevators.
The British mental health charity Mind acknowledges that some doctors are still sceptical but supports the notion of good mood food with a useful section on its website.
In a sense, Western medicine is playing catch up. Certain Eastern traditions have always believed that food has the power to calm the mind. Their good mood food is part of a holistic approach that treats the whole body - not just the mind. So, rather than prescribing an anti-depressant pill, Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic medicine would use food to restore balance to improve physical and emotional health.
So, what are the main differences between the Western and Eastern approaches to good mood food?
What is the Western approach?
Health food shops are stuffed full of pills, powders and liquids, all promising to help you feel better. This approach borrows a lot from conventional Western medical science, in that the marketing tends to stress the ‘magic bullet’ effect, that individual nutrients can ‘cure’ individual ailments. So, we hear that B vitamin can increase energy and, rather than increase our intake of wholegrain products containing B vitamins, we pop a vitamin tablet.
You can’t blame the supplement companies. They are reacting to a scientific establishment that demands scientific studies demonstrating efficacy. It is more difficult to measure the success of a holistic treatment – a healthy diet – then the effect of a single nutrient. So, the Western approach to good mood food tends to follow the conventional medicine model and is based around using single nutrients.
What is the Eastern approach?
This is all about a holistic idea of restoring balance. For mental as well as physical health, it tends to categorise people according to different energies and then use food to balance these energies.
For example, Chinese medicine categorises people and food as either Yin (cold) or Yang (hot). Ayurvedic medicine separates people into three types: Vata (weak and cool), Pitta (energetic and hot) and Kapha (slow and warm). Specific foods are then used to offset natural tendencies.
In Ayurvedic medicine, the importance of eating pure, unadulterated food is key, as is the way it is prepared. "There is a Hindu concept of blessed food, food prepared with love," explains ayurvedic practitioner Tarik Dervish. This means avoiding restaurant food, factory-manufactured ready meals and fast food and, instead, eating at home with loved-ones "in a pleasant, soothing environment," according to Dervla. So, noisy music or an action movie on TV are both out. Even arguments at the dinner table are to be avoided.
What we can learn from them both?
There is a cross-over between Western and Eastern approaches to good mood food. Many traditional Eastern ideas, which were developed pre-modern medicine, turn out to be supported by modern, scientific medicine.
For example, it is now known that to have good mental health we need a large array of ‘co-factors’ - that is different nutrients in minuscule amounts that support chemical reactions in the brain, as well as elsewhere. The Ayurvedic principle of incorporating the six tastes is a natural way to ensure the diet supplies a wide variety of nutrients.
Good mood good: The Western way
In Western medicine, there are some general principles to improving your mood through food, as well as some key nutrients you should try and incorporate into your diet.
Balance your blood sugar
Blood sugar that yo-yos up and down raises the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These can make you feel jittery and anxious and disrupt sleep. Eat a low GI diet of whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats organised into 3 meals and 2 snacks a day. Reduce stimulants (tea, coffee, alcohol, sugar).
Too much cardio can raise the stress hormone cortisol. But, 30 minutes three times a week will minimise this while pushing up feel-good endorphins to ease feelings of tiredness and depression. Try fast walking, swimming, running or cycling.
Why? Often called ‘nature’s tranquiliser’, magnesium is known to be present in the synaptic gap between nerve cells and, so, regulates nerve cell function. Magnesium deficiency may cause muscle and joint aches, anxiety and insomnia
How? Eat more green, leafy vegetables, dried fruits and nuts. Try making a salad from baby spinach leaves and sprinkle on some chopped walnuts, or have a snack of a handful of brazil nuts and dried apricots. Or take a supplement of 500mg magnesium daily.
- Omega 3 fats
Why? We've all heard that kids who are given fish oil tablets do better at school. Fish oils have the same mood-lifting, concentration-boosting effects on adults. This is because the myelin sheath (that protects nerve cells like the plastic wrapped around electrical wiring) is partly made of omega 3 fats.
How? Eat oily fish (salmon, mackerel, herring) three times weekly or add unsalted nuts and seeds to your diet. Try chopping a handful of almonds into a crumb and press this into the flesh side of a piece of salmon. Wrap in foil and bake for 15 to 20 minutes till cooked through. Or take a fish oil tablet daily that delivers 1000 mg EPA/DHA.
- B vitamins
Why? B vitamins help us release energy from the food we eat, but stress burns them up. A deficiency which can happen after a period of sustained stress can leave us feeling tired and down.
How? Eat more wholegrain foods. Try making a sandwich from seeded bread with salad and half a sliced avocado (a source of healthy brain-boosting fats). Or take a B vitamin complex tablet daily.
Why? Serotonin is a hormone we all make that is a natural anti-depressant. Prozac and other pills work by increasing serotonin. However, you can also up your serotonin levels by increasing your intake of the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan supplements are illegal in the UK, but you can buy 5HTP, which is a herbal precursor for tryptophan.
How? Eat more foods containing tryptophan such as turkey, bananas and avocado. Try cooking a turkey stir fry by slicing a turkey breast and tossing into a wok with sugar snap peas, broccoli florets, carrot sticks, soy, chilli and ginger. Or take 50mg of 5HTP daily.
Why? Glutamine is an amino acid that the body uses to make something called Gamma-Amino-Butyric Acid (GABA). This is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, in that it switches off nerve function in the brain. In other words, it is a natural sedative.
How? Eat food sources of glutamine such as meat, fish, beans and peanuts. Try making pork satay with peanut sauce. Spike chunks of lean pork onto soaked skewers and put on a barbecue. Make a simple peanut sauce by mixing peanut butter, soy sauce, lime juice and chilli into a paste. Or take 500 mg L-Gluramine p/day.
Good mood good: the Eastern way
The Eastern approach is not about popping pills but balancing your energy using whole foods cooked and eaten in a particular way.
Buy seasonal and local
Why? Ayurvedic medicine is built on the idea of avoiding pollutants in food as they may affect ‘Agni’ or digestive power and this can affect mental and physical health. Foods grown and eaten out of season may have been artificially enhanced (pesticides or fertilisers) to bring on ripening. If they have been grown a long way away, they may have been processed to extend shelf life (preservatives).
How? Buy organic and at local farmer’s markets. When shopping in the supermarket, check the label to see where your food is from. Even better, grow your own. You don’t need acres of land. Herbs can be grown in a pot on a windowsill.
Cook from scratch
Why? The intention of the cook is important, according to Ayurveda. Factory foods are made to make money, whereas foods cooked by ourselves or our family are made with love. This will be reflected in the care with which they are made and may result in a meal imbued with positive mood-lifting energy.
How? Avoid restaurants and ready meals. Don’t be reliant on batch cooking or the freezer. Once a day, cook a meal from scratch and eat it with loved ones. Try a mung bean soup (an Ayurvedic staple) which is like a lentil soup, but made from mung beans which are regarded as more detoxifying.
Eat your pudding first
Why? Ayurvedic meals are a combination of six food tastes: sweet (sugar, honey, rice, pasta, milk), sour (lemons, hard cheese, yoghurt, vinegar), salty, pungent (hot spices like chilli), bitter (green veggies), astringent (pomegranate, beans and lentils). These tastes need to be eaten in that order (sweet first) to ensure ‘Agni’.
How? Eat a plate of fruit ½ hour before your meal, then pitta breads with home-made yoghurt raita as a starter, followed by a vegetable curry.
Why? Spices such as turmeric, coriander seed and cinnamon are used in ayurvedic cooking to stimulate the digestion and increase detoxification.
How? Make a south Indian vegetable curry. Fry dried chilli, cumin and coriander seeds in a little oil, then add chopped vegetables and coconut milk. When the veggies are cooked, add a squeeze of lemon and serve.