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Cultivating Calm in the COVID-19 Era
Fear and anxiety have become daily worldwide realities. That means good nutrition is more vital than ever. 03/18/2021 by Eliza Leggatt

For more than a year, most of the world has been confronted with new realities and anxieties that have changed life as we know it, in some ways many of us never imagined possible.

Almost without pause, every headline, news article, program, and billboard has told us to do something we do reflexively by now anyway: stay home, and stay healthy.

Sounds pretty simple, right?

Unfortunately, it’s becoming clear that “simply” staying home - and shutting down schools and social events and soccer teams and playdates and meetings and churches and parks and playgrounds and swimming pools - is having its own distinctly negative impact on our health, particularly our mental health.

Desperately seeking hope in a grim reality

young male looking out of window with face mask on during lockdown quarantine
Researchers say consequences of COVID-19 fears include “acute panic, anxiety, obsessive behaviors, hoarding, paranoia, and depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)” and others that we may not grasp for decades to come (Dubey, 2020).

Along with the reported transmission rates, “the 2019 Corona Virus Disease (COVID-19) has caused universal psychosocial impact by causing mass hysteria, economic burden and financial losses. Mass fear of COVID-19, termed as ‘coronaphobia,’ has generated a plethora of psychiatric manifestations across the different strata of the society” (Dubey, 2020).

With professional help challenging to access now, what can the average person do to reduce the impact of an unnatural state of life which has become the “new normal”? (Maragakis, 2020)

The specific burden on children

The shock of lockdown solitude and social isolation forced on our children will be a defining lifetime event we have yet to understand, due to children’s greater susceptibility to long-term psychiatric effects (Marques, 2020).

I’ve watched my own children struggle with profound loneliness over the past year. There is a profound helplessness that comes from seeing one’s children in pain. I find myself asking myself what more I can do as a mother, and the burden I feel for other children across the globe at times feels completely overwhelming. At least in “normal” circumstances, adults and kids would be able to access counseling or mental health services, and find relief. Wouldn’t they?

Limits to conventional treatments for mental distress

Even before COVID, anxiety disorders and fear-related behaviors had long been among “the most prevalent and disabling psychiatric disorders in the United States and worldwide” (Murrough, 2015). Despite huge amounts of research and funding for anti-anxiety drug discoveries, “the clinical outcome of these efforts has been disappointing” (Griebel, 2013).

Standard medications and psychotherapy have a pretty dismal success rate, with only about half of patients receiving successful treatment, and one-quarter achieving full resolution of their symptoms (Roy-Byrne, 2015).

Could it be that the standard approach to anxiety disorders needs a paradigm shift?

Anxiety is on the brain. Is the answer on the plate?

Interestingly, many of these conditions are accompanied by metabolism problems that typify the Standard American Diet (Norwitz, 2020) such as:

  • oxidative stress and insulin resistance (Bouayed, 2009), (Firth, 2019)
  • inflammation as a result of omega 3/6 imbalances (Norwitz, 2019)
  • imbalanced gut flora (Jiang, 2018)

While the benefits of correcting these imbalances has been well-documented in these pages and in the scientific literature, the memo hasn’t quite made it mainstream… yet. “It is therefore feasible, if not probable, that we are approaching neurological conditions with the wrong paradigm” (Norwitz, 2021).

In other words…

Want a happier brain? Mind your belly and your gut

serotonin molecular structure
The serotonin molecule. Serotonin production happens largely in the gut, is essential for brain health, and can be influenced for better or worse by diet.

Dr. Eva Selhub points out in an article for Harvard Health Medical School that the growing field of nutritional psychiatry promises a better understanding of the brain-gut connection. With 95 percent of serotonin - a neurotransmitter essential for sleep regulation, mood mediation, and pain inhibition - being produced from the gut, and hundreds of millions of neurons physically located within the digestive tract, the connection between brain and diet becomes even more apparent.

And the makeup of our gut microflora can actually influence the production of serotonin - meaning, if our beneficial bacteria is absent or lacking, it can impact our mental health tremendously (Selhub, 2015).

Brains to bowels: A two-way street

Just as our food can influence our brain, our mood can influence our gut microbes by the release of stress hormones (Malan-Muller, 2018). Simply put, the highway back and forth between the brain and the gut is a two-way street. At times of stress and anxiety challenges, it’s more important than ever to focus on maintaining healthy gut flora by eating fermented foods and antibiotic-free animal proteins including wild-caught fish.

Omega-3s essential for mind and body

Because omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, abundant in seafood, are essential for inflammation control and critical for cognition, brain development, and mental health, they are now widely recognized as the foundation of healthy mental function (Weiser, 2016). There is evidence that patients with social anxiety have between 18 and 34 percent reduced EPA and DHA levels, with an inverse correlation as well.

That means the lower the levels, the more severe the anxiety (Green, 2006).

Sunshine vitamin? Sunnier outlook

While lower levels of vitamin D have been associated with depression and anxiety (Bicikova, 2015), supplementing at higher levels has been demonstrated to significantly improve symptoms of anxiety (Eid, 2019).

Other promising nutrition strategies for mental health include a ketogenic diet, which has its earliest origins in addressing mental health disorders (Fortier, 2019) and dietary tryptophan, abundant in foods such as turkey, beef and salmon, essential for the body to make serotonin (Höglund, 2019).

The need for hope

As the consequences of the past year become clearer, so too will our need for the ultimate nourishment: hope. When the news headlines become overwhelming, when social media is too much, when the walls are closing in on us, we take a moment to step outside, breathe the fresh air, and focus on the positive.

My children often ask me how I can tell them with such confidence that this difficult time won’t last forever. While I don’t know how long it will be, I do smile (convincingly, I hope) and remind them that everything in nature changes, and eventually, this will too.

I hope.



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