Throughout this period of forced social isolation, many are fortunate enough to be living with family and therefore may not feel the negative effects of social distancing as much. However, many are also completely alone and will be vulnerable to the negative impact of isolation on the brain. So in light of this knowledge and in the interest of maintaining our mental wellbeing throughout this time of uncertainty and lack of human connection, we at Food for the Brain, have put together a few tips that we hope will help to keep you healthy, both physically and mentally.
Avoid Sugars and Processed Foods
When we eat foods that are high in refined sugars such as biscuits, chocolates, confectionary, fizzy drinks and fruit juices, as well as processed foods such as commercial cereals, crisps and snack bars, our blood sugar levels fluctuate wildly, which can have a negative impact on our mental health. This is because our brain is an extremely energy-hungry organ and takes up 20% of the body’s total expenditure, so it’s no wonder that the brain is sensitive to fluctuating blood sugar levels. Avoiding these foods can therefore prevent mood swings, fatigue and poor concentration and protect the brain from shortages in energy.
Eat Blood Sugar Balancing foods
Eating meals that contain rich sources of protein such as animal meat, eggs, fish and pulses, eaten with complex carbohydrates such as brown rice and bread, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, sweet potatoes, beets, butternut squash, swede and parsnips, can help to maintain steady blood sugar levels. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, it is important to combine pulses and grains together to make sure you’re getting all of the essential amino acids – eating brown rice and lentils together, is a good example.
When we exercise, our body produces molecules called endorphins, which is our brain’s very own opioids that are both pain-relieving and mood-lifting. Exercise also stimulates a molecule called brain-derived-neurotrophic-factor (BDNF), a mechanism that triggers the creation of brand new brain cells and cellular repair. Whilst in quarantine or social isolating, it is even more important to stay active to keep the brain functioning optimally. This can help to offset the negative impact that the stress of loneliness can have on the brain. Level of exercise requirement is dependent on age and mobility. For elderly, engaging in some light aerobic exercise, as well as gentle yoga is great, and for younger generations, doing some HIIT routines or body weight training exercise would be more suitable. Both will help to stimulate blood circulation to the brain, helping to deliver vital oxygen and nutrients, which nourish the cells. Here are some great online channels to help get you started:
Fitness videos for younger generations: watch here
Support the Gut Microbiome
Our gut has tens of trillions of microorganisms, including at least 1000 different species of known bacteria with more than 3 million genes (150 times more than human genes), weighing up to 2kg. Scientists say that we are just as bacteria as we are human, highlighting the importance of these critters to the basic functioning of the body. Indeed, research has exploded in the area investigating the relationship between the gut and the brain, showing that bacteria are not only important for helping us digest and for protecting our immune system, but they are also essential for maintaining a stable mood. Scientists at the University College Cork, Ireland, were the first to discover that transplanting gut microbes from a depressed rodent to a non-depressed rodent causes behaviour changes that indicate depression. Other research at the University College Cork has discovered that some gut bacteria such as Bifidobacteria produce an amino acid called tryptophan, which is an important building block for serotonin, the brain chemical known to influence mood. According to resident Professor Ted Dinan “the brain needs a constant supply of tryptophan and the microbiota play a part in providing it”.
Key ways to diversify the gut microbiome and ensure healthy levels of ‘good’ bacteria, such as bifidobacteria, is to eat a wide range of vegetables varying in colour as much as possible. This helps to expose bacteria to a range of different types of fibre and plant nutrients, which help to nourish them and keep them healthy. In addition, eating fermented food such as sauerkraut, natural live yoghurt and fermented soy like miso and tempeh, also help to provide a natural source of probiotics or good bacteria, helping the keep the gut populated with optimal levels of bacteria strains that have a positive impact on health.
Prioritise Winding Down
In a recent study using a stress-relieving technique called progressive muscle relaxation in covid-19 patients, it was found that engaging in this activity where muscles are individually tensed and relaxed for about 30 minutes per day for five consecutive days, improved sleep quality and reduced anxiety in comparison to the control group that received standard treatment. This study was carried out in response to clinical observation of increased rates of insomnia and anxiety in patients self isolating. In addition, sleep medication is known to depress the lungs, so it is therefore contraindicated in those suffering with covid-19 and those with respiratory conditions. This study demonstrates just how powerful stress reduction techniques can be in mitigating the negative impact that isolation can have on mental health.
Other techniques include mindfulness meditation and yoga. If you’d like to practice progressive muscle relaxation in the comfort of your own home, please click here.