COVID-19 has hugely taken its toll on our mental wellbeing this year. From health worries to the stress of home schooling, worry for family and friends to financial difficulties, most people have run the gamut of emotions over the last 6 months. And for many, it is more serious than that – according to the World Health Organisation, who have conducted a study of the mental health of 130 countries, the pandemic has highlighted the devastating effect that COVID-19 has had on our mental health and also underscored the urgent need for medical funding.
And just when we got excited at the thought of throwing off our face masks and returning to life as ‘normal’ most of us are now in a state of limbo, wondering if we will go back into lockdown, or ever return to our old lives at all.
Here at 35thousand, in order to help raise your happiness levels, we have decided to do a series of articles that will delve into the various different areas of ‘mood-boosting’. Starting here with the benefits of eating nutritious food, we will also look into psychological, physical and therapeutic ways of lifting our spirits in articles to come.
Food for thought
In recent years , we have become far more aware of the link between the state of our gut and our minds. Scientists have now proven that our gut is responsible for producing a large proportion of our neurotransmitters, the chemicals that transmit information throughout the body and brain. In fact, it has been shown that as much as 90 per cent of serotonin (our so-called ‘happy’ hormone) is made in our gut, so it goes without saying that if the state of our stomach is out of whack, then our brains could well be too.
Not only that but scientists have shown that it’s not just our bodies that require fuel – brains get hungry too. Doctors believe that they use up about a quarter of our daily energy supply, consuming roughly 300 calories in the day and the same again at night. It is therefore vitally important says dietician Rachel Clarkson that we support the link between the gut and the brain (the gut/brain axis) by fuelling ourselves with optimum foods which may well help keep anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders at bay.
But it’s no good throwing a packet of probiotics into your supermarket trolley and hoping for the best. According to Rachel when it comes to the gut/brain axis there should be a multi-pronged approach. She suggests the following…
Eat seratonin boosting foods
We want to make sure that we have adequate levels of serotonin in our bodies explains Rachel, “This chemical messenger contributes to happiness and wellbeing, but in order for it to be produced it required the amino acid tryptophan to be present, which you can get through your diet by eating tryptophan-high food.”
Rachel therefore suggests eating tofu, egg yoke, salmon, turkey, and plenty of nuts and seeds. She adds, however, that it is important to know that tryptophan is enhanced when eaten with a carbohydrate (which is why, perhaps, she thinks we have sugar cravings). She therefore suggests pairing the above with, say, brown rice, quinoa, lentils or fruit. “You could have eggs on toast for example or a tofu stir-fry or maybe a turkey and cheese brown bread sandwich,” she says.
Focus on your gut health
Our gut microbiome has been the health buzzwords of the last few years, but for good reason – this flora of different bacteria lining our intestines has been proven to be hugely beneficial for our health if looked after correctly. “We want to support a vast microbiome as poor microbiome variety has been linked to stress, depression and anxiety,” says Rachel. “The gut brain axis is the interaction between the microbiome in your gut and the cognitive and emotional centres in the brain.”
What is key, she explains is that we all have a diverse range of good bacteria in our stomachs which will involve eating a diverse range of plant foods. In particular, she also suggests eating fermented foods or live cultures which will add beneficial bacteria and enzymes into your overall intestinal flora. She therefore suggests adding Miso, Kimchee, Kombucha, Sauerkraut, and yoghurt into your diet where you can. When it comes to yoghurt, however, look out for the words ‘active’ or ‘live’ on the label or mentions specific good bacteria.
You also, she explains, want to feed the Microbiome with prebiotics (this is the food that the bacteria feed on) ,and this involves eating a lot of fibrous foods where you can. Some suggestions would be beans, leeks, onions, artichokes and whole wheat bread or pasta.
As for probiotics, Rachel suggests that unless you have a diagnosed digestive/health issue, then it’s best to opt for naturally occurring probiotics in fermented foods.
Balance blood sugar levels
We all know what it’s like to feel ‘hangry’ when we are haven’t eaten, and how this can make us feel low or jittery, and anxious. What we don’t want, explains Rachel, is for our body to go into hypoglycemic mode, where our blood sugar is too low. She therefore suggests eating a healthy portion of whole grain carbs at most meals in order to maintain a steady flow of glucose. This she says, “Can be in the form of fruit, or quinoa, buckwheat, chickpeas, sweet potatoes and it’s important to eat wholegrain bread and pasta where you can.”
If you are suffering from low mood, Rachel suggests potentially steering clear of low carbohydrate diets which have been particularly popular I recent years. “Low mood can be associated with nutrient deficiencies such as B vitamins and selenium which are found in foods such as bread, lentils, cereal, milk and bananas, so a low carb diet may exacerbate these further,” she says.
Ensure nutrient deficiency isn’t present
It may sound boring and you are probably sick to death of hearing the word ‘balance’ from health professionals, but if you don’t have a diet that contains carbohydrates, proteins and healthy fats, then you may be lacking in nutrients that are associated with mood. For example, if you are either low in iron or lacking in B vitamins you may feel low and irritable.
It’s incredibly hard to prescribe one eating plan for everybody as our bodies and goals are all so different but as a general rule, (and especially is you are susceptible to low mood), Rachel suggests including a wholegrain carbohydrate at breakfast, at lunch and a as snack, but keeping it optional for dinner. She also suggests eating protein at every meal and incuding a healthy fat too.
Other tips for supporting the gut brain pathway
Take Omega 3’s
There is evidence around the benefit of Omega3 supplementation for people with diagnosed clinical depression says Rachel.
Note: these should not to replace any medication.
Hydrate hydrate hydrate for a happy brain
Your brain can’t function unless you are well hydrated so you may feel fatigued if you don’t hydrate throughout the day. Aim to drink 6 glasses of water a day.
Tackle emotional eating
Rachel also highlights the importance of managing our emotions around eating, “It’s important to try to take away any feelings of guilt,” says Rachel, “So we feel happy and healthy in our minds instead of feeling shameful. If you do eat something indulgent then take a breath and acknowledge that you have enjoyed that food and then put it behind you move onto the next healthy meal.”
Buy this feel-good cookbook
Rachel Kelly is the author of The Happy Kitchen and The Happiness Diet. Having suffered from anxiety and depression for many years, it wasn’t until she researched and improved her diet that she realised how good much better she felt. Created with nutritional therapist Alice Mackintosh, they consist of gut and brain-boosting recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Here’s a sample recipe from The Happy Kitchen
The Tropical C Smoothie
Alice says ‘I have this for breakfast if I wake feeling whacked. Alice designed it so that I could get lots of energy-boosting goodness in one go. These fruits are rich in vitamin C and fibre, while the walnuts an avocado deliver protein and healthy fats to balance everything out. The oats and nuts add substance and slow down the absorption of sugar from the fruit and the cinnamon may also reduce sugar cravings.”
½ papaya and 1 whole mango
1 tbs oats
250 ml almond, coconut or oat milk
Cinnamon to taste
Peel the papaya or mango and remove its seed or stone
Chop it into medium-sized shunks and pop it into a blender with all the other ingredients. Blend until smooth
If you enjoyed this article then you will LOVE reading about what happens to your microbiome when you travel here
Notes on mental health
Please note that these tips are not meant to be a replacement for speaking with a licensed therapist and/or a psychiatrist. Please do not be afraid to seek help if you feel that you or someone else is struggling and could benefit from it. Contact your local GP, family doctor or insurance company and/or your local government/ council to seek other government funded resources for mental health.
Mental Health helplines
US – SAMHSA (Substances Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
UK – MIND – Call 0300 123 3393 or text SHOUT to 85258 which is a crisis textile for support in a crisis www.giveusashout.org/get-help/
You don’t need to be travelling to a third world country to upset your insides, even a trip to a country a few hours away can upend your system if you are eating foods that are foreign to your system. “Few activities are more disruptive to your body than travel,” says Ara Katz who is the Co-founder and Co-CEO of Seed which is a new state of the art synbiotic supplement (containing pro and prebiotics together). “Large and sudden shifts in diet can alter the composition of your microbiome in as little as 24 hours,” she says. “Even small microbial tweaks, like introducing a new herb or spice or something else you are not used to, can result in noticeable delays in the transit time of food through the bowels.”
It’s not just the food you eat that will upset your insides, if you’re travelling further afield to somewhere that might cause jetlag this, too can be very disruptive for your body. Ara says, “Jet lag occurs when your body’s circadian rhythms are disturbed which can also impact the microbiome. Not many people know that your microbes have circadian clocks, just like you, which, when out of sync, can cause issues from reduced gut barrier integrity to a suppressed immune response.”
Gabriela Peacock a London-based nutritionist concurs, “Different bacterial populations fluctuate through the sleep/wake pattern, and so the microbial metabolites that can impact our own circadian rhythms. By disrupting our Microbiotas clock, this could lead to foods being differentially digested and gastrointestinal problems.”
So how can we support our guts on the go?
If you want to feel your best when you’re travelling, it’s hugely important that when you pack your passport and your toothbrush that you spare a minute for your microbial community too. If you are there for long enough, Gabriella suggests trying to gradually adjust your eating times to line up with your new time zone, a little each day. She also recommends undertaking a fast while crossing time zones in the air and for a period of time in your new destination, roughly 24hours in total (she stresses the importance of drinking plenty of fluids such as water and herbal tea throughout). “If you do feel you need to have something whilst travelling,” she says, “Avoid salt-laden, sugar-rich plane meals and try taking your own high protein small snack/meal with you to have at a time that would be ‘normal’ meal time in the time zone you have just left.”
Should I take probiotics?
If you are worried about feeling unwell when abroad, or you’re heading somewhere that requires a lot of transport away from usual facilities, then Gabriella suggests taking a probiotic. “Fortunately, most travel-related disruptions to the microbiome will resolve themselves shortly after returning home. However, they can cause a lot of discomfort and hassle while you’re still on the road,” says Ara, which is where taking her Seed Daily Synbiotic can help.
What is the difference between a synbiotic and probiotic?
A probiotic contains ‘good’ bacteria that help our microbiome to work at its optimum. A prebiotic are particular foods that help the probiotics to thrive. Together they make a synbiotic.
How do probiotics work?
As transient microbes, probiotics travel through your colon, interacting with your immune cells, gut cells, dietary nutrients, and resident bacteria to directly and indirectly deliver benefits. Ara explains that it’s important to take your probiotic daily—like anything you ingest, they don’t stick around for very long. Seed, she explains, is a synbiotic that has been created with the help of scientists, doctors, innovators and entrepreneurs and it meets a new standard in efficacy and education.
“One of the primary roles of the microbiome is something called ‘colonization resistance’,” She explains, “Think of your microbes as a kind of ‘neighborhood watch’ program. They actively patrol all the major ecosystems in your body, day and night. These protective microbes can block pathogens from attaching to the lining in your gut, your airways, your skin or urogenital tract. They can block access to food, and can starve any pathogens at the site of the invasion. They can even produce toxins that inhibit certain invading pathogens. The more diverse and well-balanced your microbiome is, the more effective your body will be at colonization resistance.” In basic terms, a good probiotic helps prevent bad bacteria from taking up residence in your gut.
That being said, Ara warns that no probiotic or synbiotic will be a silver bullet in illness prevention, at home or abroad and she stresses the importance of taking additional protective measures such as travel immunizations, antimalarial medications, and using good old-fashioned common sense.
How should we take probiotics?
One of the popular misconceptions people have about probiotics Ara explains, is that they need to ‘colonize’ you in order to be effective. In reality, the vast majority of probiotics don’t contain enough new bacteria to alter the composition of your microbiome. Even if they did, we still don’t know enough about the safety of introducing colonizing microbes.
Probiotics don’t hang around for long in your system so you need to take them daily if you want results. If you’re only planning to take a probiotic or synbiotic while you’re on the road, Ara recommends starting your ‘course’ a few days, or even a week, before your trip begins. That way, your body can acclimate to the presence of these new visiting microbes.
How do you choose a good probiotic?
Ara explains that many ‘probiotic’ products don’t do what they say on the tin. Many, she says are not actually probiotics, scientifically speaking. “In order to meet the scientific definition of a probiotic, the formulation must reflect the specific quantities and strains that have been studied in a clinical trial, and be proven to deliver specific benefits,” she says.
When you are buying a probiotic she suggests seeking out the scientific research of the brand (this also applies to probiotic supplements, yoghurts and kombucha). If it doesn’t exist, or if there isn’t enough information to find out (watch out for probiotics that only list the species of bacteria), then there’s a good chance it doesn’t meet the definition of ‘probiotic.’
Finally, she says, it’s essential that the microorganisms inside the probiotic are actually alive, and capable of surviving digestion. Our digestive systems are designed to neutralize microbes before they get to the colon. Seed’s probiotics are encased in a Chlorophyllin outer capsule that cleverly houses the prebiotics which will be released first into the system. The p casing will then dissolve to release the probiotics. This method has been extensively tested so that the probiotics survive digestion.
Do probiotics need to be refrigerated?
That probiotics need to be kept in the fridge is a misconception too explains Ara. In actuality, new technologies offer many innovative ways to maintain shelf-stability of bacteria.
How else can we prevent illness when travelling?
Probiotics are only one part of being well when you’re away. Before your trip, check the Centers for Disease Control, Travel Health Pro, or GOV.UK websites to get up-to-date information on potential outbreaks and immunization recommendations for the area you’re travelling to. Beyond that, make sure you stay hydrated (with filtered water), eat well balanced meals (that have been adequately prepared), get good sleep, and exercise.
Should we stay away from particular foods abroad?
Rather than focusing on the actual ingredients of food, it will serve you better to know how it has been prepared. Gabriella says, “When travelling I would avoid any foods that have been kept warm or reheated, try to opt for foods you know are being prepared freshly for you or that you can see being cooked. Avoid ice in countries that do not have a reliable safe tap water supply, and if you are particularly sensitive also avoid salads that will have been washed in tap water, or fruits that do not have a removable skin.”
Long haul flights (and even short haul flights) can play havoc with our digestive system and circadian rhythms. Shifting time zones, in-flight meals containing food you may not normally eat, the potential of eating five meals in one day and the fact that your digestion doesn’t function optimally in the air, can leave anyone feeling totally out of whack. Not to mention the Magnums they bring round mid-flight these days and or the snacks you grabbed in WHSmith because there were no other options on your way through the airport.
Here, nutritionist Nicola Moore www.nicolamoore.com gives her advice on eating well as you traverse the world.
Stick to mealtimes
In order not to disrupt our digestion any more than we have to, nutritionist Nicola Moore suggests we avoid constant snacking in the air. Our digestions, she explains, is slower in the air so her optimum advice would be to stick to allocated mealtimes instead so your system isn’t put under any more stress than necessary. “Some scientists are now advocating the benefits of fasting during long haul flights as a way of reducing jetlag,” says Nicola, which would make sense because it stops your system getting stuck in a particular time zone. However she says, if you were to practise this then it’s incredibly important to stay well hydrated with water.
If you snack, snack smart
If however, fasting really isn’t an option for you or you really can’t last between meals then she suggests packing healthier snacks, not just grabbing whatever you can in the departure lounge. “Nuts are portable and don’t take up too much room,” she says, “Also blueberries are helpful for supporting the gut microbiome as well as being hydrating. I also like the Deliciously Ella Oat Bars which are less sweet than her protein balls – try the Cacao and Almond.” Others that are low in sugar but big on taste (and good for the sweet-toothed) are Livia’s Million Squares which are a healthier alternative to Millionaire’s Shortbread and use dates instead of sugary caramel www.livias.co.uk.
Take on for take-off
If you can’t stand the idea of plane food in any shape or form, then don’t think twice about making your own homemade food but bear in mind the restrictions over taking liquids on board. You may get stopped at bag check if you’re carrying last night’s Chilli Con Carne for example. Sandwiches may be portable but Nicola suggests using Pitta bread instead of heavy bread, which you can then fill with lots of goodness and they wrap up and store well in your hand luggage. “My ideas for fillings are: tuna and salad, chicken and avocado, hummus and salad or sliced falafel and salad leaves,” she says, “It’s amazing how much you can stuff into a pitta as an alternative to plane food.”
If you’re looking for a great non-spill lunchboxes and containers look no further than www.black-blum.com who have a fantastic array of steel and wooden ones.
The airport food edit
If you don’t have time pre departure to make yourself some food, then most airports now house a Pret a Manger which Nicola agrees sell a wide range of salads, often well balanced with protein, natural fat and fibre. “You can’t go wrong with them,” she says. Pret also offer healthier snack alternatives than many fast food outlets including nuts, fruit and pots of apple and nut butter.
For the bloat-prone
One fact of flying that not many people know about, is that your digestion doesn’t work as well at altitude. “The air pressure in the cabin appears to have quite an impact on your gut,” explains Nicola, “Most notably with regards to the Microbiome which can’t digest food as well.” If this concerns you, or if you suffer from bloating or just want to feel tip top on arrival, it could be beneficial to eat before you fly. “Consider having a balanced meal an hour or so before take-off,” says Nicola, “And eat again once you’ve landed.”
If you have to eat the plane food…
Often we are so hungry by the time the plane food comes round that we inhale whatever is put in front of us. However, it’s worth taking a minute to pause and think about making the healthiest choice. “I’d suggest going for the protein part of the meal first and avoiding too much of the bread-style elements,” says Nicola, “This should help keep you fuller for longer and reduce cravings for the rest of the flight.”
How bad is in-flight alcohol?
If you’ve ever had alcohol on a flight, you may well know that it goes to your head faster than on the ground. This is because our body and liver don’t quite function at full capacity when flying. Alcohol also, explains Nicola, has a big impact on the gut microbiome, which is a key area for performance and energy. Therefore if you want to be sharp for that meeting on arrival, it would be beneficial to steer clear of the G ‘N’ T’s (it can also make jetlag worse), but if you do want a drink Nicola suggests having it at meal times only and drinking at least one glass of water to every glass of alcohol consumed. Her healthier drinks trolley alternative would be a Virgin Mary which is filling, hydrating and low in sugars.
Hydration on high
We’re all aware of maintaining hydration in the air but do you know why? According to experts, drinking water actually helps to avoid the risks of deep vein thrombosis. Another reason for us to stay hydrated up high is because a well-hydrated brain works better cognitively. Nicola suggests travelling with a refillable water bottle (she likes Swell for keeping drinks hot or cold. ”I’d say that drinking water throughout your flight – especially if it’s a long one, is one of the most important things you can do.”
A nutritionist once told me a great piece of advice which was – if you can’t find anything good to eat whilst travelling, wait to eat until you do. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to eat an iced bun just because it’s put in front of you.