3 Ways to Care for Your Brain in a Pandemic

In the wake of the global spread of the 2019 coronavirus (COVID-19), many of us have started to think more carefully about our health. How can we reduce our risk of infection and of infecting others? How can we improve our immune function? What might the virus do to our lungs, heart and blood vessels? But while these questions are very important, it’s also critical to consider how a pandemic affects our brains and how to guard them against this damage. Specifically, we need to be considering strategies to protect our mental and cognitive health.

We’ve long known that mental health suffers in periods of high stress. So it’s no surprise that the current pandemic has been linked to a spike in feelings of anxiety and depression. A troubling May 2020 survey reported that over 34% of Americans are now experiencing these symptoms. This comes at a time when the world is already experiencing an epidemic of mental illness.

We also understand that people’s thinking can be compromised when they are under stress. Though mild stresses can help us to focus, higher levels over longer periods of time may damage our brains and lead us to make bad choices. Unfortunately, as others have pointed out, COVID-19 is likely to create high levels of stress around the world.

Despite this, there’s plenty of good news. That’s because we each have the ability to improve our brain health with simple lifestyle interventions. In doing so, we may be able to lower our risk for developing stress-related brain damage. These tactics may also help to lower our chances of developing long-term health issues.

Eat for a resilient brain

COVID-19 has been a powerful teacher for us all. As it relates to our wellness, we now understand the importance of resilience. Resiliency means that we’re able to handle a variety of different challenges and still stand strong. A resilient brain helps us make good choices under pressure. It also helps us fend off symptoms of anxiety and depression. One of the best ways to build this type of brain is through our diet.

To help create a resilient brain, we want to be thinking about ways to increase our defenses against environmental challenges. Our brains are mostly made of fats. Of these, omega-3 fatty acids are key, because they may help fight damaging oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a natural result of living, but it is increased when we are under significant psychological strain, as is the case during a pandemic. We get omega-3 fatty acids when we eat fish like mackerel, sardines, salmon, anchovies and herring. These healthy fats can also be found in fish or algae-derived supplements.

We can additionally increase brain resilience using polyphenols. Polyphenols are chemicals that are naturally made by plants. When we eat plants, we consume polyphenols and benefit from their properties. These molecules are thought to help protect our brain cells against toxins. Plant products with high levels of polyphenols include berries, grapes, green tea and dark chocolate.

Finally, as it relates to food, we want to be eating to improve our brain resilience to mental health issues. To this end, it’s important to try to avoid ultra-processed food products (both plant and animal) and anything with added sugars or refined carbohydrates.

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