COVID-19: How to use diet and supplements to maintain immunity... and sanity

By Nikki Hancocks contact

- Last updated on GMT

Getty | RossHelen
Getty | RossHelen

Related tags: coronavirus, COVID-19, diet, mood, Cognitive health

A dietitian and founder of a 'good mood food' startup has shared her tips for maintaining good mental health during the uncertain times of this COVID-19 pandemic.

Kara Landau, founder of Uplift Food​ and author of the Good Mood Food Guide and Prebiotic Manual, says that whilst this global health crisis brings uncertainty to many aspects of our lives, there’s one things that remains certain – our diets can help get us through this.

“One thing I know for certain is that what we eat does play a role in both how we feel and in our immune health.

“Given the connection between dietary factors, inflammation, and mood, it makes sense to try and minimize any potential nutritional deficiencies that could lead to an increase in inflammation within the body.”

The gut health specialist who attended NutraIngredients’ Probiota conference earlier this year says that as the founder of a small startup company she understands the anxiety this situation can bring.

“It can lead anyone to experience feelings anywhere between deep concern to paralysing anxiety.”

She points out there are foods rich in specific nutrients that are known to help alleviate and prevent anxiety and depression, reduce inflammation in the body, and ultimately help to build the immune system. 

Prebiotics

As the nutrition adviser and media representative for the Global Prebiotic Association, it’s not surprising that Landau points to prebiotics as a key dietary component for improving mental health.

She says: “With the gut-brain connection having a wealth of research to support its important role in our mental health, including our understanding that poor gut health can lead to the release of inflammatory molecules in the body, and depression and anxiety being known to be conditions not only from a chemical imbalance but also of inflammation within the body.

“Together with the knowledge that the immune system is predominantly found within the gut - It is with reasonable understanding that the key fuel source for the diverse bacteria within the gut, also known as prebiotics, would play a vital piece in the story for both positive mental wellbeing together with strengthening your immune system.”

She points out that the specific bacteria type that are typically targeted by prebiotics are Lactobacilli​ and bifidobacteria​, with positive changes in bifidobacteria ​the most commonly seen. What's more, the prebiotics that are fermented by the bacteria in the colon lead to the production of beneficial short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that have direct, and indirect, health benefits.

She outlines some of the key sources of gut health boosting prebiotic fibres.

“Although many of the densest sources of prebiotics are often found in less commonly consumed foods such as chicory root and dandelion greens, there are more easily incorporated foods that you can weave into your diets in situations such as we find ourselves in now, including roasting and then cooling potatoes or pasta, overnight oats or raw oats used in energy balls, incorporating onion and garlic into dishes, consuming legume based pastas, as well as blending in green banana flour or a prebiotic supplement into a smoothie.”

Antioxidants and polyphenols

Antioxidants and polyphenols are the ‘powerhouses’ that not only reduce inflammation in the body but also play a supportive role in many of the body's 'wellbeing systems', and more recently some have even been shown to support gut health via their own prebiotic activity, says Landau.

If you are house-bound and do not feel it is possible to continue to purchase fresh deep coloured fruits and vegetables for any reason, additional options to attain these nutrients include Vitamin E and selenium rich nuts and seeds such as sunflower seeds, almonds, brazil nuts, as well as other healthy fat rich foods such as avocado and extra virgin olive oil.

“I would advise to continue consuming deep coloured fruits and vegetables - and just because there are no frozen fruits or vegetable options left at the grocery store does not mean you can not purchase fresh berries or vegetables, place them in the freezer, and add into a smoothie or dish when you are ready to use them.” 

Magnesium

“Often referred to as the calming mineral, Magnesium assists with the conversion of 5 hydroxytryptophan into serotonin, one of the forms you find tryptophan in within the body whilst serotonin is being produced.

“Many people these days are unknowingly deficient in magnesium which has the potential to negatively affect your ability to boost your mood naturally through increased serotonin production.

“For this reason, ensuring that you consume adequate dietary sources of magnesium is essential to promoting a positive mood.”

 Landau points out that some key food sources of magnesium include: whole-grains such as oats and wheat-bran, broccoli, raspberries, nuts and seeds, natural nut or seed butters are dense sources that are often easy to incorporate into the diet, beans, bananas, and cocoa / dark chocolate.

Vitamin D

It’s unsurprising that vitamin D – the happy vitamin absorbed from sunshine - would appear on the list of mental health stabilising nutrients.

“Research has continually been uncovering how important a role Vitamin D plays in the maintenance of optimal physical and mental health.

“Although the exact mechanisms of action are still being uncovered, what can be understood is that Vitamin D deficiency appears to be associated with a number of inflammatory conditions, including Type II Diabetes, Arthritis and even Cardiovascular Disease.” 

She adds that in a study of almost 12600​ people over a four year period, it was found that higher blood levels of Vitamin D were associated with significantly decreased risk of depression, and in particular, this association was found to be strongest in those people whom had had a previous history of depression.

Although sunlight is often our best option for Vitamin D, for those that are not in areas that permit this at this time, some easily accessible food options include: canned fish and eggs, and although offering the not quite as well absorbed Vitamin D2 plant based version of Vitamin D, high vitamin D mushrooms are an option for those who follow a vegan diet.”

Omega-3’s

Omega 3 is well understood as playing a beneficial role in reducing inflammation within the body and there are three different types of omega 3’s that are commonly focused on: DHA, EPA and ALA.

Landau explains: “DHA - docosahexaenoic acids - are long chain fatty acids that make up part of the cell membranes of our brains cells, and play a role in the transmission of chemical signals from cell to cell therefore is usually promoted for heart health.

“EPA- Eicosapentaenoic acid - is also a long chain fatty acid which helps to reduce inflammation and therefore is associated with improving your mood.

“DHA and EPA can be found in fatty, cold-water fish such as salmon, tuna, herring, sardines, mackerel and halibut. They are also found in vegan micro-algae sources from which are thought to be where they actually originate in the food system, to begin with.

“ALA is found in hemp seeds, sacha inchi seeds, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and some dark green leafy vegetables, including kale and spinach. Only a very small percentage of ALA is converted into EPA (around 6%), which can then be converted into DHA (around 3.8%). Therefore ALA is not as potent for mood elevation or heart health as EPA and DHA coming from the alternative sources.”

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