How to Eat for Better Emotional Health

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Health experts warn that a lingering effect of the coronavirus pandemic could be a mental health crisis. While therapy and medications for stress and anxiety are often necessary, the foods you eat can also play a role in your well-being.

An American Psychiatric Association poll released in March found that 36% of Americans felt the existence of the COVID-19 pandemic was having a serious impact on their mental health. People were most worried about their finances, the risk of themselves or a family member contracting the virus, and the possibility of becoming seriously ill or dying.

The gut-brain connection

The gut has been called the “second brain.” And we recognize the link between the two even if we don’t realize it: You may feel “butterflies in your stomach” when you’re nervous or “go with your gut” when you make an important decision.

Naidoo said the two are connected physically and biochemically via the gut-brain axis, the complex communications network that links the emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with intestinal functions.

Foods that can hurt mental health

Fried foods, processed foods, trans fats, nitrates and foods high in salt, saturated fat and refined sugars can worsen depression, anxiety and stress.

“If you’re eating processed foods and fast foods every day, that’s basically making the bad gut bacteria thrive, and that’s when you start to run into problems with inflammation,” Naidoo explained.

Too much caffeine and alcohol may also make you feel worse mentally but are usually OK in moderation. Drinking 400 mg per day or less of coffee shouldn’t have an impact on anxiety, Naidoo said.

People respond to alcohol intake differently, but generally, four drinks a day for men and three for women is considered heavy drinking.

How to start eating for your mental health

To shift your diet with mental health in mind, Naidoo suggests starting small. Trying to change too much too fast can be overwhelming and diminish results. “Slow and steady change over time will start to build that healthy gut and basically start to build on the healthy nutrients that are good for your brain,” she said.

Begin with a diet self-check. Write down what you ate over the past 24 to 48 hours, circle the foods that are unhealthy, and then decide on one simple change you can make. You don’t necessarily have to give up some of your favorite less-than-healthy foods, though.

Taking steps to improve your diet for your mental health is especially important today, she said, as the effects of the pandemic will persist. Concerns over jobs, finances, food insecurity, gaps in children’s education and more will take a toll.

A healthy diet can help mitigate or buffer one from these types of effects as it sets the stage for a beneficial gut microbiome and less inflammation, both of which are tied to mood, anxiety, depression and even sleep.

Begin with a diet self-check. Write down what you ate over the past 24 to 48 hours, circle the foods that are unhealthy, and then decide on one simple change you can make. You don’t necessarily have to give up some of your favorite less-than-healthy foods, though.

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