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Food to ease stress, for those feeling the Covid-19 blues right now.

Cliché or not, there’s a reason why “stressed spelt backwards is desserts” is as popularly used as it is. If the never-ending barrage of COVID-19 doom and gloom hasn’t gotten to you yet, perhaps the fact that you’ll be homebound until mid of May will.

An outbreak can be very stressful for people; fear about contracting an infectious disease can be overwhelming and trigger strong emotions in many, more so when the new virus is unchartered territory. The good news is you’re not powerless, and feeling more in control and less anxious about the situation can start in the kitchen.

Our brain has very high energy and nutrient requirements and deficiencies can alter its chemistry, especially the neurotransmitters that bring about calmness. There are several strategies in which you can employ to help reduce anxiety at home, from yoga and exercising, to baking and sometimes, by simply not stressing about it at all.

But if the saying “you are what you eat” is anything to go by, perhaps your daily routine of instant noodles, candy bars, and three cups of coffee isn’t the best way of curbing this unsettling feeling. Adjusting your diet can make a big difference in the way you cope during these turbulent times. Besides, few things are as therapeutic as whipping up a storm in the kitchen.

Now put down that Xanax, help is only a dish away.

1
Chocolate

The taste of dark chocolate can be polarising for many, but research might just change your mind about this bittersweet treat. The darker the chocolate, the more flavonoids it contains. These naturally occurring plant pigments improve various aspects of cognition and works with the other neuromodulating and psychoactive ingredients to regulate moods and produce serotonin, otherwise known as the happy chemical.

Flavonoids are also known for improving inflammatory profiles, which has been shown to play in the role in the onset of depression.

Unfortunately, you’re not going to enjoy the same benefits from milk chocolate.

2
Salmon

Fatty fish like wild salmon contain omega-3 fatty acids, which translates to happy food, according to your brain. Healthy fat from dietary sources help your brain function optimally, and these fatty acids (EPA and DHA, to be precise) work with vitamin D to help regulate dopamine and serotonin levels to make you feel calmer and more relaxed.

If you’re vegetarian or vegan, chia seeds and walnuts make nutritious omega-3 rich alternatives too.

3
Holy basil

Also known as tulsi, holy basil is a plant native to the Indian subcontinent and is widespread as a cultivated plant throughout the Southeast Asian tropics. The powerful antioxidant might be loaded with antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties, but the Ayurvedic staple is particularly effective against stress relief and relaxation.

As an adaptogen, the entire plant is capable of helping your body adapt to stress not by altering moods, but by helping the body function optimally during dire times. Its anti-depressant properties have even been compared to several drugs in the market. While Ayurvedic practitioners recommend drinking holy basil as a tea using the leaves, its spicy and bitter flavour might put you off, so reach for a supplement instead.

Side note: the same results cannot be achieved with sweet basil — you know, the kind you season your pasta with.

4
Chamomile

You know chamomile as the tea to drink for a good night’s sleep, but the daisy-like herb also works wonders as an anxiety relief throughout the day. Studies have shown that long-term chamomile use has anti-inflammatory effects, and reduces moderate to severe symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder, one of the most common anxiety disorders today.

5
Turmeric

The spice might be a common ingredient in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine, but it also packs a punch in the psychiatry department for preventing anxiety disorders.

Loaded with curcumin, an anti-inflammatory compound, turmeric helps boost the omega-3 fatty acid DHA in the brain by synthesising it more efficiently. It also prevents damage to brain cells, and reduces cytokines, an inflammatory marker that’s often linked to anxiety development.

6
Pumpkin seeds

Pumpkin seeds are one of the most satisfying snacks you could have in your pantry, but they’re also famous for their anxiety and stress-relieving properties. Besides containing a ton of magnesium, which lowers anger, irritability and anxiety, the seeds are also loaded with tryptophan, which helps make serotonin.

It doesn’t hurt that there’s also zinc to keep your immune system happy, and iron and copper for mental relaxation. The next time you’re about to panic-eat your way through the afternoon, reach for a handful of these instead.

7
Avocado

More than everyone’s favourite toast topping, avocados are packed with magnesium and B vitamins such as thiamine and riboflavin to help the body make neurotransmitters like the mood-boosting serotonin. Its vitamin E content is also not only important for healthy skin and vision, but has been connected with cognitive health.

Besides, its high heart-healthy fat content keeps you feeling satiated for longer so you don’t spiral down the stress-eating slump in the middle of the day.

This article first appeared on Lifestyle Asia Singapore

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