How nutrition can help your mental health during the pandemic

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The coronavirus pandemic and the stop-start nature of lockdowns have taken their toll on everyone’s mental health. We caught up with Institute for Optimum Nutrition to find out more about their new Brain Bio Centre which specialises in nutrition to support mental health concerns.

Many of us experience short-term angst on a daily basis, but the longer-term implications of how this will impact us are far-reaching and not yet totally understood.

Worryingly, The Centre for Mental Health predicts that up to 10 million people (20% of the population) will need either new or additional mental health support as a result of the pandemic. Of these, 1.5 million will be children and young people under 18.

The Brain Bio Centre

In response to this, and as fears for the nation’s mental health grow, the Institute for Optimum Nutrition (ION) has opened the Brain Bio Centre, specialising in optimum nutrition to support mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, and learning and behavioural issues (in children and adults).

Using a personalised approach to nutritional therapy, the clinic identifies nutritional deficiencies, biological imbalances and genetic factors that contribute to symptoms, and offers tailored recommendations to get to the root of the problem.

As well as having positive effects on mental wellbeing, the changes may also lead to better sleep, increased energy and weight loss.

The role of nutrition during the pandemic

It’s a key time to look after our health and wellbeing. Even with the vaccine programme rolling out, building healthy and robust immune systems is vital – and nutrition and lifestyle can play an important role.

In fact, research from Ohio State University has found that stress, depression and poor health behaviours can all affect the body’s immune response to vaccination. This includes how well we develop antibodies after a vaccine, how long antibodies last after vaccination and the intensity of side effects.

Managing stress, sleep and our diets in the lead up to our vaccination can influence how our bodies respond. In the longer term, supporting our immune health also helps to build our resilience against future infection.

Lorraine Perretta, a registered nutritional therapist from the Brain Bio Centre, says: “There is no doubt we are seeing the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of the nation here at the clinic, with more people suffering from anxiety and insomnia than ever. Our personalised approach is key to the work we do. Every person is different, so every solution is tailored to their individual needs.”

Perretta says that whilst we can’t remove the stress of the current situation, we can give the body biochemical support to improve stamina through nutritional support and supplementation. “That’s why we take a scientific, nutritional approach to mental health conditions, grounded in science and combined with our years of experience,” she says. “We always try to identify the biochemical factors contributing to an individual’s symptoms and look at what is going on internally first.”

Naturally during the pandemic, individuals who struggle with low mood are finding it even harder to cope. “Our natural response,” says Perretta, “is to find a reason for feelings of sadness and depression. Often there is what we call ‘biochemical sadness’, which already exists but people don’t make the link between how they are feeling and nutrition,” she explains. “Consulting a nutritional therapist combined with biochemical testing can help to find the individual root cause of the feelings.”

She suggests making three changes initially, as any more can be unrealistic and unachievable. “Perhaps reduce sugar to reduce anxiety, or find alternatives to wheat or dairy,” she says. “As everyone is different, it’s our priority to find individual solutions. My philosophy is that small, gradual changes are long lasting.”

She adds: “At the Brain Bio Centre, we don’t just look at nutritional factors. We also look at lifestyle factors which may have an impact, including sleep, exercise and work/life balance.

“My advice to those struggling during the pandemic is to try and minimise stress, establish a routine and set small nutritional goals such as to eat more fruit and vegetables or drink more water and herbal tea – caffeine only adds to feelings of anxiety.”

Family health and wellbeing

According to a Mind report published after the first lockdown, nearly half (46%) of young people say that their mental health was poor or very poor during the toughest restrictions.

Olga Preston, registered nutritional therapist and expert in nutrition for this age group, says: “Children and young people are really struggling because their ability to engage, share, learn and play as they usually would has gone. At a vital time in their development, when they are learning to control their emotions and to behave and interact, they are finding themselves spending vast amounts of time with just parents or guardians. Social interaction and community learning – vital for their development – is only happening online.”

For young adults, she says that hormonal changes will also be happening. At a time when they are finding their place in the world, lockdowns can be incredibly challenging. “Not being able to mix with friends and the pressure of having to produce the same quality of school work at home, combined with the distractions that come with being at home rather than at school, can be challenging for all the family,” says Preston.

But nutrition can play its part. “Having set mealtimes, where the family come together, is a good opportunity for a social break from screens and technology,” she says. There are many ways to introduce good nutrition to build mental resilience.

Here are Preston’s top tips:

  1. Protein for breakfast Give children and young adults protein for breakfast. Avoid cereals with sugar, which heighten feelings of anxiety. Choose things like beans on toast, egg and avocado on toast or eggs with spinach.
  2. Healthy snacks Avoid crisps and chocolate for snacks and instead opt for carrot sticks, cucumber sticks, cherry tomatoes or olives. These are perfect little bite-sized morsels of goodness that contribute to that all-important 5-a-day.
  3. Essential fatty acids Introduce essential fatty acids which help to control feelings of anger and defiance. Omega 3’s are vital for brain health and can easily be introduced through home-made fishcakes using tinned smoked salmon, peas and sweet potato or by adding salmon or mackerel to an omelette. Also try sprinkling chia seeds on smoothies or on salads.
  4. Stay hydrated When your children are spending long periods of time in front of a screen, it’s really important that they drink plenty of water. Avoid sugar-based drinks and stick to fresh water.
  5. Greens are good! Remember the mantra; greens are good. They are packed with vitamins and magnesium to help ease feelings of anxiety.

Preston also advises adding some exercise into your daily routine, whether it’s a walk in the fresh air or an online class. This will help with feelings of vitality and improved wellbeing.

And finally, looking to the future, Perretta believes there will inevitably be long-term implications to the nation’s mental health. “This pandemic is a trauma,” she says.

“With trauma comes post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD), but it’s my firm belief that the people who are biochemically suffering will feel it the most. If you sort out the underlying issues though nutritional changes, which usually takes about six months, we can then focus on the symptoms that are left and address those through other complementary therapies.’’

Refrerences

[1] https://www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk/publications/covid-19-and-nations-mental-health-october-2020

[2] https://advance.sagepub.com/articles/preprint/Psychological_and_Behavioral_Predictors_of_Vaccine_Efficacy_Considerations_for_COVID-19/13528418/1

[3] https://www.mind.org.uk/media-a/5929/the-mental-health-emergency_a4_final.pdf?

 

Find out more about the Brain Bio centre and The Institute for Optimum Nutrition over at:  ion.ac.uk/thrivecareers