Feeling low? You’re not alone. A new survey conducted by the American Psychological Association reveals a secondary pandemic in the form of a mental health crisis one year after lockdown. According to survey findings, three in four adults (75%) reported experiencing high stress levels. Nearly half of parents surveyed (48%) said the level of stress in their life has increased compared with before the pandemic.
“The prolonging pandemic and the increased lockdowns is igniting fear and uncertainty, causing a burgeoning of mental health symptoms in individuals who previously felt okay,” says Dr. Uma Naidoo, M.D., director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, faculty member at Harvard Medical School and author of This Is Your Brain on Food.
Thankfully, there are ways to prevent and reduce symptoms by focusing on lifestyle changes. Food and nutrition are essential to mental wellbeing, says Dr. Naidoo, who pioneered the field of nutritional psychiatry in the United States. She regularly counsels individuals on how to incorporate healthy foods and nutritional habits to improve their mental health. Pay attention to healthier whole food options, and stay away from processed foods as both can help improve how you feel.
Below, she breaks down the five types of nutrients and most nutritious foods that will help boost your mood:
1. B Vitamins
Vitamins such as folate (B9) and B12 are crucial in preventing and easing depression, Dr. Naidoo says. Studies have suggested that folate deficiency is linked to increased risk of depression. Vitamins B1 (thiamine) and B6 (pyridoxine) are also important as they help the brain produce neurotransmitters associated with mood regulation. Foods rich in B vitamins include leafy greens, legumes, eggs and seeds.
One of Dr. Naidoo’s favorite ways to incorporate folate into her diet is with a quick chickpea stir-fry. Chickpeas are complex carbs full of fiber, protein, folate and other nutrients.
Visit her IG for the ultimate chickpea stir-fry recipe.
2. Dietary Fiber
Fibrous foods keep you satiated, are easy to digest, and promote the growth of “good” gut bacteria, Dr. Naidoo says. Research has shown that inflammation in the brain is linked to anxiety. Dietary fiber can ease your brain inflammatory response. Fiber can be found in many fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Dal, a lentil-based soup filled with fiber, plant-based protein, vitamins and spices, is one of Dr. Naidoo’s favorite comfort foods. This soup became a staple while Dr. Naidoo was undergoing breast cancer as it “not only tasted good but also [made her] feel healthy.”
To learn more about Dr. Naidoo’s resilient journey and get her dal recipe, visit Mind Body Green.
Low iron and depression have been linked i studies. Iron helps make up the covering that protects neurons and impacts the synthesis of chemical pathways associated with mood, Dr. Naidoo explains . There are two types of iron: heme iron, found in animal products like meat, and non-heme iron found in plants like mushrooms.
Popular sources of iron include shellfish, lean red meats, legumes, pumpkin seeds and broccoli. Dr. Naidoo’s all-time favorite, iron-rich snack is dark chocolate paired with a citrus fruit, such as an orange.
To learn more about the benefits of dark chocolate and explore her other favorite pairings, visit her Instagram.
4. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3s are essential for mental health as they lower inflammatory markers in the brain, Dr. Naidoo says. Research suggests that individuals who consume food rich in omega-3s have a lower risk of depression compared to those who eat full-fat foods filled with omega-6s. Nuts and seeds, like walnuts and flax seeds, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
Dr. Naidoo loves to incorporate a variety of omega-3 rich foods in her plant-based power bowls. A lot of those ingredients, like walnuts, also have other powerful brain-boosting benefits such as magnesium and dietary fiber.
Visit her Instagram for the recipe.
Probiotic-rich foods are filled with beneficial bacteria that help your body and brain, Dr. Naidoo says. Studies have shown that certain species of gut bacteria can boost levels of brain chemicals, easing depression and other mental health conditions. Probiotics are found in a wide variety of foods like yogurt, sauerkraut and kimchi.
One of Dr. Naidoo’s favorite probiotic-rich meals is her creamy artichoke and leek soup.
This comforting, plant-based soup is full of healthy fibers and probiotics that will keep you full for a while.
Visit Mind Body Green for the full recipe.
To learn more about Dr. Uma Naidoo’s work in the field of nutritional psychiatry and the mood-food connection, check out her book This Is Your Brain on Food. In the guide, she draws on cutting-edge research to explain the many ways in which food contributes to our mental health, and shows how a sound diet can help treat and prevent a wide range of psychological and cognitive health issues. Visit book.umanaidoomd.com to purchase her book today!