Welcome to 2021! May everyone be healthy and safe.
The data isn’t available for 2021, but if you are like the 30% of Canadians who made resolutions going into 2020, almost half of us had goals around eating better and losing weight. However, with the arrival of Covid-19, many of us fell off of the resolution bandwagon. When we’re in survival mode, it’s difficult to change habits. In fact, we often resort to comfort activities. Baking and online shopping, anyone?
One of the results of Covid-19 is the negative effect on our mental health. Anxiety and depression levels are increasing rapidly across all age groups, as we live with uncertainty, isolation and 24/7 news coverage about pandemic numbers and positive or negative testing and vaccination numbers. We are grieving not only the death of loved ones but the loss of regular, physical contact with our friends, family members, coworkers and casual contact with other humans.
So, as we move into 2021, what can we do?
What Some Of The Experts Are Saying
As the pandemic continues, experts are offering suggestions on how to get through the waiting period for the life to return to a ‘familiar normal’. A recent University of Waterloo article, provided data from a study that asked a number of scientific psychologists for their ideas of how to get through the pandemic. Their results were tabulated, and…
“The most common psychological recommendation was to establish a sense of agency — to find a way to remain in charge of your day-to-day life, despite pandemic uncertainty. Research in psychology shows that such mental focus can help regulate emotions in the face of uncertainty. It includes finding ways to reframe the pandemic as a manageable challenge, to find “something that you want to get out of bed for,” as one interviewee mentioned, or to establish structure and habits to compensate for lack of external structure in a lockdown-imposed work from home.”
The entire article can be found here.
Let’s Put It Together: Eating for Mental Health
What would happen if we combined our desire (i.e. resolutions) for making positive dietary changes with our need to improve/maintain our mental health?
Disclaimer: I’m not a dietician! Any ideas that I’m presenting are based on research articles and websites that I’ve read. I’ve linked to these resources throughout this post.
The Link Between Diet and Mental Health
Researchers in the relatively new field of Nutritional Psychiatry are discovering the links between dietary patterns and mental health. Basically, the more we eat a ‘western’ or highly-processed diet, the greater our risk for anxiety and depression. Based on what I’ve read, I’ve found three areas in which diet affects our physical health–leading to declines in mental/brain health: Obesity, the Gut/Brain Axis and Inflammation.
Even before the pandemic, the numbers are frightening. According to Statistics Canada (2018) data; 26.8% of Canadians 18 and older (roughly 7.3 million adults) reported height and weight that classified them as obese. Another 9.9 million adults (36.3%) were classified as overweight – bringing the total population with increased health risks due to excess weight to 63.1% in 2018.
When we think about mental/brain health, obesity is linked to higher instances of Alzheimer’s disease and depression due to vascular cognitive impairment (which can be caused by lifestyle habits such as poor diet and excess weight).
The Gut/Brain Axis (GBA)
We don’t live in our bodies alone. Instead, we share our gut with trillions of microbial organisms (bacteria, viruses, and archaea) that make up our microbiome. Our brain and gut interact using a system of neural (the vagus nerve), inflammatory responses and hormones–making up the brain/gut axis.
When our microbiome is in a healthy balance, this system works well. Unfortunately, the gut imbalance can happen due to chronic stress, poor diet, environmental toxins and infections.
While the science on this is relatively new, a study (mentioned in the above link) found rodents undergoing emotion-like changes based on changes in their microbiome. When fecal gut microbiota from humans with depression was inserted into rodents, the rodents showed depression-like behaviours.
According to this 2019 Psychology Today article, inflammation is the body’s defence mechanism for infections, irritants, stress and physical trauma. The body produces small protein cells called cytokines in response. According to the author, studies link depression and anxiety to inflammation and high levels of cytokines.
While this may all be overwhelming….
All Is Not Lost
An article published in PNS: Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, described the results of a study published in BMC Medicine. They wrote:
“One randomised controlled trial published this year in BMC Medicine demonstrated quite striking effects of a 3-month dietary intervention on moderate-to-severe depression, with a significantly greater improvement in the dietary intervention group and remission achieved in 32 % of this group”.
The dietary intervention that seems to have the most positive effect on mental health is one made up of whole foods–i.e. the opposite of the Western, processed food diet that is common in our culture.
The Mediterranean Diet
According to the Mayo Clinic, interest in the Mediterranean diet began in the 1960s with the observation that coronary heart disease caused fewer deaths in Mediterranean countries, such as Greece and Italy than in the U.S. and northern Europe. Actually, it’s more accurate to say the “Mediterranean diet” is not a diet as such, but a way of eating with slight variations depending on which Mediterranean country you’re looking at.
It is comprised of lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes; moderate amounts of fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products. Eat limited amounts of red meat.
Studies such as this one, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, show the link between positive mental health and the Mediterranean way of eating. The Mediterranean diet has also been shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and heart disease.
As I delved deeper into my research, it was easy to become overwhelmed by the amount and complexity of the information. My 2021 resolution? Keep it simple. Move to a more whole foods diet, while being kind to myself. Change is never easy, especially during stressful times such as these.
Let’s all raise a carrot to better mental health in 2021!
For more information, here’s a Library of Congress documentary on the Mediterranean diet to get you started. Enjoy!