Nutrition, Mental Health and Running: How we can improve our moods through proper nutrition during a Pandemic (Part 1)

Written by Rachel Hannah, Registered Dietitian, University of Guelph, Health & Performance Centre. Hannah ran her debut marathon in 2:33:30 in the 2015 Ottawa Marathon. Presented by xact nutrition.


The world is going through a very challenging time and everyone is dealing with different struggles, and for some of us that can have a heavy impact on mental health. Also, poor diet is the leading cause of health burden across the world. It is the leading cause of premature death in men and number two in women because of changes to our global food systems. 

I started studying nutrition after learning this eye-opening statistic  because I wanted to make a positive difference in people’s lives and improve the quality of our years on earth. I am sure many others can relate when I describe my own significant decline in mood, energy levels and overall productivity since COVID-19 and isolation began. You are not alone in this struggle right now. Mental well being is a critical component of overall wellness and nutrition does play a key role. “Mental disorders account for the leading cause of disability worldwide, with depression accounting for the large proportion of that burden.”

 We are a highly complex and integrated system and lifestyle modifications are incredibly important and there is an emerging interest in nutritional psychiatry.  It is an ideal time to focus on nutrition right now, especially as we gear up for solo workouts and virtual races. Since we are missing our usual routines and social interactions, we need to do all we can to make sure our bodies and our minds feel like they are functioning well. An Angus Reid poll recently revealed that about 50% of Canadians feel our mental health has worsened since the pandemic started. Dr. Jonathan Danson is a Clinical Psychologist who believes that COVID-19 and physical distancing are particularly problematic for high achievers. Time commitments are different now and more time can actually cause more anxiety. There are many other factors that can cause mood concerns right now too, of course.  

Mental health is a complex topic and we have to be careful when using food as the only treatment for mood. This article is focused on those experiencing a change in mood related to the recent pandemic or some mild to moderate forms of depression and anxiety. For those with more severe cases of mental health issues, these guidelines are only intended to be as a suggestion along with other forms of treatment like medication, to help you feel better faster, or during certain circumstances when your mood is worsening. I am not an expert on this topic so if you have major concerns about mental health please talk to the appropriate qualified professional. 

Watching and hearing negativity from stressful news can cause higher levels of stress. Stressors are things that we experience or observe and feel we are unable to cope with mentally, causing stress reactive areas of our brains to turn on. Stress hormones, like cortisol, then turn on and the impact on our bodies can lead to changes to our physical and mental health. When we are exposed to chronic stress it can be challenging to follow through with healthy behaviours. Stress right now is unavoidable so we need to find coping mechanisms.

Since our brains are negatively impacted by chronic stress, this can impact our mood, learning and possibly sleep as well. Acute stress causes less of an interest in food due to the fight or flight response, but chronic stress elevates cortisol levels and people might turn to food for comfort since this can improve our mood due to serotonin release.

According to Dr. Yoni Freedhoff “Our job is to live the healthiest lives we can honestly enjoy with the smallest amount of indulgence we need to like our lives. During a pandemic we might need more of an indulgence than usual.” If we are hungry and need comfort we might eat more. But everyone’s response is different and some might not be eating enough. This can happen to some athletes due to exercise’s ability to interfere with hormones that regulate hunger levels. The main point is everyone’s nutrition needs and response to stress are different but there are some commonalities related to how different components in food make different neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) that can change how we feel.

Tryptophan is an amino acid that helps make serotonin in the brain. You will already find it in protein-rich foods like chicken, turkey, fish, nuts & seeds, soy, beans/lentils and eggs. Serotonin is a messenger chemical in the brain and improves mood and how we feel. Many anti-depressant medications help the body regulate serotonin. The brain is protected by the blood brain barrier and only the important nutrients can go in and out for protection and not everything makes it across. Research done in 2016 found a way for tryptophan to get access to the brain. Pairing tryptophan-rich foods with antioxidant-rich foods like fruits and vegetables helps to get more tryptophan into the brain. Antioxidants also help protect enzymes involved in this process and reduce inflammatory markers. Getting a wide variety of plant foods is important to get adequate amounts of antioxidants (Read more about antioxidants here).

When we don’t eat enough nutrient-rich foods our body may lack vital vitamins and minerals, which can affect brain function, energy levels and mood. Ideally, we want to get the vitamins and minerals our bodies need to thrive from a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables, but some people may need to take supplements to meet these needs. A few examples include folic acid for pregnancy, vitamin D for everyone in the winter months and iron supplements for people diagnosed with anemia. 

Nutritional Psychiatry is a growing field and describes the brain, gut, and mood connection. In the second part of this two part article we look even closer at the research between diet, gut health and mental health, as well as share our suggestions on improving our energy levels and well-being through our diet.  For now, I wish you well and be aware of your stress levels.