Everybody was affected by Covid-19 and the lockdown in one way or another. I wanted to find out how changes in diet and lifestyle can help mood, stress and other wellbeing factors.
At the beginning of April, here in the UK we three weeks into lockdown and reports of mental health issues, increased stress and anxiety were on the rise. I wanted to help people on a larger scale and thought of a study, which took all my work into account.
It seems that I hit a nerve - within 24hrs more than 100 people from all over the world had signed up for a three week study. The majority was obviously from the UK, but there were people in New Zealand, the US, Australia and Europe. That gave me some insight on how people in other countries and at different stages of the lockdown dealt with the changes they were going through.
So, what did we do?
As a nutritionist, it made sense to start with a food list, mainly every-day-foods but all of those contained certain vitamins and nutrients which have shown a positive impact on brain health, mood, nerves and energy levels: magnesium (the relaxation mineral), all eight B vitamins (to support brain and nerves), Omega 3 and Vitamin D (known to support mental health). Included in the food list were foods like: sunflower seeds, brazil nuts, salmon, eggs, asparagus.
On top of that I added in foods that support gut bacteria, because research shows the ongoing communication between the gut and the brain. Probiotics and prebiotics like yoghurt, apples, leeks were required to support gut health and brain health.
I encouraged small but significant changes to lifestyle and activity habits: for example adapting meal times to support better sleep: if you eat a bit earlier, your body has more time to digest the food which helps better sleep;
I knew I had to find the balance between doing enough to make a difference and interfering in people’s lives too much, so I gave people a wide variety of things to do and to avoid. I realised that some people live alone and spend days without talking to somebody. So one of the tasks was: Increasing their social contacts and have a daily call with a friend or relative, check in how they are and share stories.
Another recommendation was to reduce sugar intake – a massive factor in fluctuating energy levels.
As a fitness instructor exercise is always one of my main topics and I encouraged the participants to increase all sorts of activity and exercise. Exercise simply makes us feel good, no matter if it is a brisk walk or an 100mile bike ride. My mantra was: whatever you do now, do a bit more.
And I was even brave enough to ask people to reduce their alcohol consumption, which I knew was a big favour to ask! But alcohol has a big impact on mental health – and I was very pleased to see that over the duration of the study alcohol consumption came down significantly: by the end of the study, 72% had only one or two drinks per week!
But it became clear rather quickly that a daily email with a little task was helpful to keep participants engaged and motivated. Most of the tasks did not take longer than 5 or 10 minutes, they included ideas to improve mental activity, lots of exercise recommendations, some mindfulness. A few examples were:
a coffee meditation – here I was selfish – because I love coffee! :) But I wanted to find a way to help the participants focusing on one single thing – the smell, the taste, the warmth of the fluid. Too often we do 5 things at the same time.
I introduced journaling, asked the participants one day to contact somebody they haven’t heard from during lockdown and sent exercise challenge where the family could join in.
And I got help: Leadership Coach Ben Morton shared his sleep timeline to support better sleep; My friend and colleague, psychologist Dr Vikki Barnes shared her thoughts about how a few minutes outside at the start of the day can ground you and how that affects your brain.
Every Friday I asked for feedback on how the week went and the results were really encouraging, bearing in mind that the study started just after the second three weeks of lockdown were introduced.
Stress was one of the first big things – before the study literally everybody was facing several forms of stress. And it was really nice to see how much stress levels came down from level 7 to 2.5
The increase in mood was lovely to see – especially that it stayed up. These numbers how the percentage of participants who felt that they made progress and or felt positive and calm. At the beginning 38% felt good, after three weeks 87% reported better mood
Productivity and performance showed another interesting change – at the start of the study perceived focus was at around 20%, after three weeks this had gone up to just under 60%
Participants reported better sleep in terms of quantity as well as quality: At the start most participants had trouble sleeping, 64% either had trouble falling asleep, their sleep was disrupted or they didn’t sleep enough. At the end, 78% reported an increase in sleep quality and quantity.
Last but not least – energy levels! They literally doubled from level 4 to level 8 which made massive difference to people’s wellbeing.
Even though the uptake during the study varied –74% of the participants made changes to their diet, 97% followed the daily tasks – it became clear very early that I needed to take the big picture into account: it’s not one of the suggestions in isolation, it’s the combination of all of them which makes a difference:
But what it really makes it worthwhile for me is that participants are keen to maintain healthy habits. Very high up on the list were continue journaling and meditation, as well as making changes to their diet. It’s the small steps that make a big difference.
If you are representing a company and want me to share the full details of the study in a webinar for your teams together with all materials, food lists and a recipe book, please get in touch.