DISCLOSURE: This article contains information about how food choices can support proper functioning of the brain and immune system. Nothing in this article should be construed as claims about treatment or prevention of COVID-19 or mental health disorders. Only hand washing and social distancing, as recommended by health agencies around the world, can prevent you from contracting COVID-19. Please follow the guidelines and recommendations set by your country’s health agencies for COVID-19 prevention, and always check with your healthcare professional before making changes to your diet.
Research shows that a poor diet could increase your risk of getting severely ill and make depression and anxiety worse. Thankfully, a healthy diet can both support mental health and boost immunity. Learn which food choices provide the nutrients your brain and immune system need!
A few weeks ago, during one of our state’s daily coronavirus updates, our governor said that he fully expects most Coloradans will get COVID-19 at some point through the course of this pandemic. The goal, he admitted, was to make sure everyone didn’t get it all at once and overwhelm the hospitals. As stunning as it was to hear him state that as the goal, other experts have set similar goals using similar predictions. Containment has effectively been ruled out as a realistic strategy [source].
As almost every state across our country has begun to reopen despite the continuing spread of coronavirus, I keep thinking about what our governor said. It certainly gives me pause, given some of the research and stories I’ve read. What we know about COVID-19 is alarming, yet we have only scratched the surface of understanding the full impact of the virus. Even “mild” cases can leave weeks of debilitating exhaustion in its wake, something that I (and millions of other Americans) cannot even begin to imagine.
Yet while the risk of coronavirus is substantial, I can also understand why some are desperate for the economy to reopen. The economic impact of COVID-19 has been devastating, and so has the toll on mental health. People are social creatures and asking them to isolate themselves has had devastating consequences. Calls to the Disaster Distress Helpline, a national hotline operated by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), increased 891% in April alone [source]. It is a staggering statistic that provides a glimpse into how much people are suffering.
So as we embark on the mission of reopening the U.S. economy, the question becomes: if almost all of us are destined to get COVID-19, is there anything we can do to help ensure we are one of the mild or asymptomatic cases, instead of one of the severe cases or deaths? Social distancing and washing hands help to slow the spread of COVID-19 and “flatten the curve”, but can we support our immune system in its fight against COVID-19 so we might have a better outcome? It seems like an important goal, especially if it is inevitable that most of us will get COVID-19 by the end of this pandemic.
Thankfully, research shows that certain food choices can both support mental health and the immune system in its fight against COVID-19.
Underlying Health Issues of Coronavirus Patients
COVID-19 is called the “novel” coronavirus because it is new. Being new, we are only beginning to learn about the symptoms it causes and how it effects the human body. So far, research has shown that those with the most severe cases of COVID-19 have comorbidities, a.k.a. underlying health conditions [source, source]. Diabetes (Type II), obesity and hypertension are the most common, and combined with elevated cholesterol and triglycerides this group of diseases is known as “metabolic syndrome”. This finding that COVID-19 outcomes are worse when diabetes, hypertension and obesity are present is especially troubling because the incidence of these diseases – and metabolic syndrome in general – has spiked over the last 40 years.
Countless studies have, in fact, connected the rise in metabolic syndrome to an increased consumption of processed foods that include significant amounts of sugar, refined carbohydrates and unhealthy fats [source]. While there are different opinions on why these dietary patterns may lead to metabolic syndrome and worse COVID-19 outcomes, research shows that diet improvements can help to reverse these trends. Blood sugar, blood pressure, weight and measures of heart health all improve when processed foods rich in sugar and simple carbohydrates are replaced with vegetables and fruit, lean protein and healthy fats from avocados, nuts and seeds [source, source]. These changes can happen rapidly, too. Improvements in blood glucose can be seen in as little as 2-3 weeks! [source, source]
Poor Diet is also Correlated with Depression and Anxiety
Interestingly, research has shown that the same diet of processed foods, sugar and unhealthy fats that contributes to metabolic syndrome and more severe COVID-19 outcomes is also correlated with higher rates of mood disorders, most notably depression [source]. And, just like metabolic syndrome improves when diet improves, so too does mental health. In fact, many of the dietary recommendations for depression and anxiety are the same as those that are recommended for metabolic syndrome: avoiding processed and fast foods as well as commercial baked goods and sweets, and then replacing these unhealthy foods with vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, and protein sources rich in omega-3 fats [source].
A more thorough understanding of the immune system and brain helps to explain how the same diet changes can support both the immune system and mental health.
Can Food Boost the Immune System?
A large array of nutrients is needed to support the immune system. Protein is used to make immune cells, along with a multitude of vitamins and minerals like vitamin A, C, D, selenium and zinc [source].
Philip Calder, et al published an article in the journal Nutrients outlining how nutrition impacts immunity:
The role nutrition plays in supporting the immune system is well-established. A wealth of mechanistic and clinical data show that vitamins, including vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, and folate; trace elements, including zinc, iron, selenium, magnesium, and copper; and the omega-3 fatty acids [EPA] and [DHA] play important and complementary roles in supporting the immune system. Inadequate intake and status of these nutrients are widespread, leading to a decrease in resistance to infections and as a consequence an increase in disease burden. [source]
Clearly, a well-balanced, nutritious diet is paramount to boosting the immune system, but what is not part of the diet is almost as important as what is part of the diet. Sugar and refined carbohydrates prevalent in processed and fast foods depress the immune system for several hours after consumption. According to Dr. Stephen Sinatra, this process happens because “[s]ugar inhibits phagocytosis, a process in which viruses and bacteria are destroyed by white blood cells” [source].
The good news is that the same diet that supports your immune system in its fight against COVID-19 supports mental health, too. And you’ll need your mental health in top shape to get through the struggles of social distancing and economic change that we’ve seen so far in the pandemic.
The Link Between Food and Mental Health
Protein isn’t just used to make immune cells: the building blocks of protein – amino acids – are also used to make neurotransmitters, the tiny substances that regulate mood. In order to convert these amino acids into neurotransmitters, a multitude of vitamins and minerals are needed, including vitamin B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B6, B12, folate, vitamin C, D, zinc, magnesium and iron [source, source]. A deficiency of any one of these vitamins, minerals or protein means that the brain cannot make enough neurotransmitters. This can lead to an imbalance that presents as depression, anxiety, insomnia, lack of motivation, inability to focus, forgetfulness, and a long list of other mood, neuro and psychiatric disorders.
While other factors contribute to mental health such as genetics and inflammation, a healthy diet that provides plenty of nutrients is a good place to start. Research shows that diet improvements alone can produce big improvements in feelings of stress and mental health disorders, like the depression that is plaguing so many during the coronavirus pandemic [source].
A Healthy Diet Should be your First Line of Defense against Coronavirus
Looking at all of this information, it should come as no surprise that “Nutritional status [is] a relevant factor influencing the outcome of patients with COVID-19” [source]. In fact, diet is emerging as such a crucial component of enduring this pandemic that an international research team is calling for public health officials to include nutritional strategies in their recommendations to improve public health. [source]
Philip Calder, a member of the team and Professor of Nutritional Immunology at the University of Southampton, explained,
The strength of somebody’s immune systems will not influence whether they get coronavirus; handwashing and social distancing are the best ways to avoid that. However, the immune system helps the body deal with the virus if they are infected and what we want is a system that functions properly when it’s challenged with bacteria and viruses. [source]
What diet does Philip Calder and his team recommend? Their recommendations are almost identical to the diet recommendations for mental health: a varied diet that contains vegetables and fruit, nuts, seeds, and protein from meat and oily fish. [source]
How to Eat for a Healthy Body and Healthy Mind
These similarities in diet recommendations for metabolic syndrome, mental health and supporting the immune system in its fight against viruses like COVID-19 mean that you can essentially “kill two birds with one stone”. Getting sufficient protein from unprocessed sources, focusing on healthy fats from avocados, nuts and seeds, and eating plenty of colorful vegetables will provide nutrients to support both your brain and immune system. A diet that includes these things would look something like this:
This is just an example of what a diet that includes all the recommendations would look like. The amount of carbohydrates from grains, legumes, fruit and roots can be increased or decreased based on individual needs, and adaptions can be made for Paleo, low carb, vegetarian and other special diets. By default, eating this way reduces or eliminates processed food, added sugar and refined carbohydrates and provides a long list of nutrients that the body and mind need to function properly.
Diet changes like this can be intimidating, so remember that the goal is to make sustainable changes. It is absolutely okay to “cheat” or take it one step at a time. Even if you need to start by making one change, such as gradually eliminating sweetened beverages or adding just one serving of vegetables a day, it’s a step in the right direction.
With all the people that are suffering right now, a step in the right direction is exactly what we need. Coronavirus has been a huge source of stress for millions of people. It’s putting our mental health and immune system to the test like never before. In the process, it’s reminding us how important food is for our health and happiness. Truly, there is no more important time than now to improve your diet.
Need ideas for how you can eat healthy and still enjoy eating? Check out the recipes on my blog, and the resource section where I list other blogs with delicious, healthy recipes.
- Akbaraly TN, Brunner EJ, Ferrie JE, Marmot MG, Kivimaki M, Singh-Manoux A. (2009). Dietary pattern and depressive symptoms in middle age. British Journal of Psychiatry, 195 (5), 408‐413. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19880930/.
- Calder, P.C.; Carr, A.C.; Gombart, A.F.; Eggersdorfer, M. (2020, April). Optimal Nutritional Status for a Well-Functioning Immune System Is an Important Factor to Protect against Viral Infections. Nutrients, 12, 1181. Retrieved from https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/12/4/1181/htm.
- Cognitive Function In-depth. Oregon State University: Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center. Retrieved from https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/health-disease/cognitive-function.
- Cornish, S., & Mehl-Madrona, L. (2008). The Role of Vitamins and Minerals in Psychiatry. Integrative Medicine Insights. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.4137/117863370800300003.
- Jackson, Amanda. (2020, April 10). A crisis mental-health hotline has seen an 891% spike in calls. CNN. Retrieved May 20, 2020 from https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/10/us/disaster-hotline-call-increase-wellness-trnd/index.html.
- Laviano, A., Koverech, A., & Zanetti, M. (2020). Nutrition support in the time of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19). Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, Calif.), 74, 110834. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nut.2020.110834.
- Neuroscience News. (2020, April 23) Healthy Diet with Nutritional Supplements Support Body in Fight Against COVID-19. Retrieved May 20, 2020 from https://neurosciencenews.com/diet-coronavirus-16234/.
- Opie RS, Itsiopoulos C, Parletta N, et al. (2017). Dietary recommendations for the prevention of depression. Nutritional Neuroscience, 20 (3), 161‐171. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26317148/.
- Richardson S, Hirsch JS, Narasimhan M, et al. (2020, April 22). Presenting Characteristics, Comorbidities, and Outcomes Among 5700 Patients Hospitalized With COVID-19 in the New York City Area. Journal of the American Medical Association. Retrieved from https://doi:10.1001/jama.2020.6775.
- Sinatra, Stephen MD. (2020, March 30). Support Your Immune System Against Coronavirus, Cold and Flu. Healthy Directions. Retrieved May 20, 2020 from https://www.healthydirections.com/coronavirus-cold-flu-immunity.
- Ware, Megan RDN LD. (2018, May 29). How an antioxidants benefit our health? Medical News Today, edited by Natalie Olsen, RD LD. Retrieved May 20, 2020 from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/301506.
- Yang, Jing, Zheng, Ya, Gou, Xi, et al. (2020, May). Prevalence of comorbidities and its effects in patients infected with SARS-CoV-2: a systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Infectious Diseases, 94, 91-95. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijid.2020.03.017.
- Yunez Behm, Victoria MS, CNS, LDN Blumberg, Jeffrey PhD, FACN, FASN, CNS-S Bush, Corinne MS, CNS et al (2020, March 5). Personalized Nutrition and the COVID-19 Era. American Nutrition Association. Retrieved on May 21, 2020 from https://theana.org/COVID-19.