Eat Veggies as COVID Comfort Food? Are You Serious?!
Biohacking Your Mental Health Ecosystem: Part Two
My Dear Reader—how are you holding up in these unprecedented times? The coronavirus has collectively shifted so much of our lives, and as we struggle to keep up with the news and the latest guidance, it can be valuable to just pause and take a break and look around at what’s changed. And I can tell you one thing that’s changed for me—as I grapple with the challenge of working and managing a team from home, I find myself reaching for the cookies and cakes far more often than normal. If not the cookies during the day, it’s ice cream at night. As if that’s not bad enough, for those of you who know me as a pescatarian (veggies + fish), in these times it’s not only satisfying my sweet tooth, I have also been eating cheeseburgers and roast beef sandwiches! What’s up with that? As it turns out, I’m far from alone. In times of stress, individuals frequently see significant changes to their eating behaviors and habits. Some engage in emotional eating, while others significantly reduce their calories. Both serves as a means to control our environments in situations that otherwise feel completely out of our hands—and completely overwhelming. But in the long term, these changes can add up to negative consequences than can far outlast the stressful situation itself.
I love ice cream as much as the rest of the world—if not more! But I also recognize that we all need the energy right now to sustain ourselves over what could be a prolonged pandemic lifestyle. Rich, salty, sweet comfort foods may provide temporary relief—but this week I want to make the case for why your mental health, your gut health, and your overall wellbeing will be far better served in the long term if you reach for some healthier options instead.
Why Do We Crave Comfort Food in the Time of COVID-19?
As it turns out, our collective reach for the sweets in our quarantine kitchens—or the salts, or all those wonderfully sinful treats in between—is a side effect of our body’s biological mechanisms for handling stress. When we are under stress, our brain releases cortisol into our bloodstream (check out these prior blogs to read more about how certain variants on our SLC6A4, FKBP5, CRHR1, and BDNF genes can lead to an increased stress response as compared with others.) Early studies have demonstrated that individuals who experience greater cortisol levels under stress ate more foods with high-sugar and high-fat content—and reported increased levels of snacking. In other words: the more stress we feel, the more we eat.
Researchers are not sure why the correlation between cortisol and stress eating exist—some suggest fat- and sugar-filed foods temporarily dampen stress-related emotions and counteract stress itself, and in the hunter-gatherer world of our ancestors food was scarce, and so packing on a few pounds increased their ability to survive. But today, in our overabundant-food-supply world, if we regularly overeat these rich comfort foods, we quickly gain weight, which in turn can cause undue stress on our biological processes and lead to worsened mental health outcomes over time. (You can read about the negative health impacts of obesity, and how your genes may contribute, here).
We also wrote about how overeating results in accelerated “Inflammaging”, which can damage healthy immune system functioning, at a time where more than ever we need a strong immune system to resist the coronavirus, should we become exposed.
There are many alternatives to stress eating, from turning to exercise to meditation for relief. But, where does that leave your diet? Luckily, your biology—and your microbiome—provide some easy, straightforward answers about what to eat for long-term health, in times of stress or otherwise.
In Times of Stress, Your Gut Bugs Need Comforting, Too!
If you’ve been following along with this blog, you’re no stranger to the dramatic impact the trillions of microbes living in your gut have on your health and wellbeing. Your microbiome has a direct line of communication with your brain called your Gut-Brain Axis, and a dysbiotic—or unhealthy—gut sends significantly different messages to the 32 trillion cells in our body than a gut that is well fed and healthy. Those messages can damage our cells and negatively impact levels of anxiety, depression, inflammation, and even memory loss and dementia. And even more importantly in this COVID-19 era, “bad gut bugs” can significantly impair immune system functioning.
Given the power and persuasion your gut bugs have on your health, why not start feeding them the right way, now? By focusing less on satiating your anxiety with comfort foods and focusing more on eating foods that keep your gut healthy, you will give your body a greater opportunity to come out of the era of the coronavirus thriving and ready to face whatever the world may look like when the pandemic comes to an end (and rest assured, it will).
Probiotics and Prebiotics: Bolster your Microbiome for Greater Health
One key symptom of a dysbiotic gut is decreased levels of diversity in the bacterial species that reside in your intestinal lining. A less diverse microbiome can lead to negative health impacts that range from increased inflammation to gastrointestinal issues to depression and much more. Luckily, probiotics offer a straightforward way to increase those levels of diversity and bolster your microbiome over time. Probiotics are defined as “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” Administration of probiotics have been shown to bolster health to such an extent that some researchers are moving to call these bacterial helpers “psychobiotics” instead!
The probiotic that I recommend to my patients, family, and friends is manufactured by a company by the name of Seed, which has assembled a world-class group of scientists in the fields of genetics and microbiome science to help design their products.
Comforting your gut in stressful times with a probiotic can help to boost your emotional and biological reserves in powerful ways. But they’re not the only way. Probiotics are living microorganisms, some of which may naturally occur in the gut already, that are typically taken in pill form—taking probiotics is like calling in the army reserves in the war against poor health. Prebiotics, on the other hand, are what probiotics and your microbiota both love to eat so they can thrive—and keep you thriving as well. Eating a diet high in prebiotic foods improve our overall immunity by increasing numbers of good bacteria while minimizing the numbers of harmful bacteria that make us sick. They’ve been found to have regulatory effects on our synaptic functions, our neurotransmitters, and on our levels of BDNF—which you may recall from this blog is our brain’s “fertilizer gene”, promoting healthy cognitive functioning, enhanced creativity, and increased overall mental wellbeing. Prebiotics have been shown to reduce stress, improve memory and concentration, and influence mood.
Prebiotic foods that I recommend to my patients include tomatoes, wheat, onions, garlic, asparagus, bananas, beans, peas, honey, fermented vegetables, sauerkraut, walnuts, pistachio nuts, Tiger Nuts, garlic, milk, oats, artichokes, leeks, chicory, sugar beets, seaweed, microalgae, and barley. What better time than now to start eating a diet high in prebiotics?
And sorry, folks, pistachio ice cream doesn’t count!
Comfort Food For Your Long Term Health
It may sound crazy to suggest eating veggies and other healthy foods as “comfort foods” in a time of crisis—but believe me, reader: your body and your brain will thank you if you do. As you begin to incorporate more foods rich in prebiotics—and probiotic supplements—into your diet, mark the changes in your health. You may be pleasantly surprised at just how much of a difference these foods can make, and find comfort in knowing that you are boosting your immune system’s ability to fight off the dreaded coronavirus should you inadvertently become exposed.
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