The pandemic has lead to a huge rise in moodiness, stress and anxiety attacks in those who have recovered, and even among those who were spared the infection, but have suffered losses of those near and dear to them.
This debilitating side effect is not getting the limelight it deserves probably because the symptoms are not physical. Anxiety and mood disorders also affect our eating patterns, which in turn could lead to multiple other health issues.
Eating Too Much or Too Little?
With mental health issues, our eating habits often suffer.
Some people overeat and gain weight, turning to food to lift their mood.
Others find they are too exhausted to prepare balanced meals or that they've lost their appetite so end up not eating enough and landing in the severe nutrient deficiencies zone.
Using food to feel better or to cope with difficult feelings. It’s a vicious cycle.
When we are feeling trapped and hopeless about life, it leads to poor eating habits, which fuels mental health issues even more.
Here a big problem is that when we eat for (perceived) comfort, we crave carbohydrates as these are widely considered as soothing comfort foods.
There’s a reason for it - foods high in carbohydrates and sugar increase levels of serotonin, a chemical in our brain that helps elevate our mood.
But while eating foods high in sugar and fat may make you feel calmer and cared for a time being, in the long term this strategy leads to weight gain, and increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other serious health problems.
In some people when severely stressed, appetite decreases drastically when they are feeling low.
They have less desire for food and they start skipping meals, often, they are sleeping through meals, and they end up unintentionally losing weight. When they are anxious, worried, or feel hopeless, there is no motivation or energy to eat and food just isn’t appealing.
In such cases not eating enough can make them more irritable and sensitive, which can worsen the depression, and lead to long term effects like severe nutrient deficiencies.
Treat Both Together
I believe if one is in either of the above two situations, it is important to seek treatment for both and consult an expert for changing the eating habits.
Otherwise it can be a frustrating and counterproductive exercise.
Solutions That Work
Look beyond food to try and comfort your body, like taking a warm bath, or sipping hot tea or hugging loved ones
Eat a varied diet: nutritional deficiencies can make depression worse.
Eat foods that help to boost serotonin (the "feel-good" chemical in the brain) naturally such as salmon, chicken, eggs, spinach, dairy, seeds, soy, nuts are good bets.
Foods rich in vitamin B6 and B12, such as whole grains, seeds, nuts, legumes, cauliflower, bananas, broccoli, cabbage, and avocados, naturally produce serotonin in the body.
Limit caffeine, alcohol and excess sugar; they temporarily increase energy and then cause sudden drops of serotonin levels in the brain.
Exercise regularly. Muscle activation during exercise allows more tryptophan (that the body converts to serotonin) to cross the blood-brain barrier. Yoga, walking, running, and aerobics are all great ways to boost serotonin naturally.
Meditate, listen to music, sit out in the sun, get a massage, practice gratitude, spend time in nature - all these help increase serotonin naturally.
(Kavita is a nutritionist, weight management consultant and health writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Don’t Diet! 50 Habits of Thin People (Jaico), Ultimate Grandmother Hacks: 50 Kickass Traditional Habits for a Fitter You (Rupa) and Fix it with foods.)