Is Lockdown Getting You Down?

Mood disorders such as depression and anxiety have increased in the recent years with many people worried about things like, loss of income or businesses, fear of the virus, uncertainty about the future, missing loved ones, feeling isolated and much more.

The ministry of health (MOH) data shows that around 1 in 4 kiwis are experiencing difficulty with their mental health (1). Although I expect that number is a lot larger as it is not uncommon for many to be feeling really low and not report it to anyone.

Of interest low mood/mental health can impact the function of the gut and the microbial diversity, which not only impacts mood but also immune function, which is of great importance at this time.

When the body perceives its external environment as a threat cortisol increases in the blood. This increase in circulating blood cortisol is linked with mood disorders (2) which can lead to unhealthy eating patterns, affecting the gastrointestinal system and microbiome, and so the cycle continues.

By consciously breaking the stress loop (if that is available for you to do so) you will support healthy stress hormone levels, influence brain chemical production to favour dopamine and serotonin, and create a happy environment in the microbiome, encouraging growth of species that are less likely to cause you to crave junk food and over eat.

Furthermore bacteria which are supportive of signalling to you, the host, to eat healthy foods, have also been linked with lower severe outcome risk in individuals with COVID 19 (3).

As Yeoh et. al notes “patients with COVID 19 were depleted in bacteria with known immunomodulatory potential, such as Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, Eubacterium rectale and several of the bifidobacterial species”. (4)

Supporting a healthy microbiome to flourish, decreasing stress and boosting your immune function can be helped by implementing some simple daily wellbeing techniques and nourishing foods.

Daily techniques to help reduce stress:

1. Try spending a little time out in nature every day, expose your eyes (brain) to morning light, this will help support healthy serotonin and melatonin levels, which will enough positive mood and healthy sleep.

2. Breath work, such as Wim Hoff method has be linked with stress reduction and resilience. Incorporating belly breathing often is also supportive.

3. Limit the amount of news you expose yourself too.

4. Reconnect with friends, connecting with others is important for wellbeing and can help us feel less stressed.

5. Create a daily routine.

6. Add activity, movement into day.

7. Try and go to sleep at the same time every night, and get around 8 hours.

8. Limit blue light (cell phone, T.V, bright house lighting) exposure after the sun goes down (5).

Food that supports mood

Fatty fish

Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of essential fats that you must obtain through your diet because your body can’t produce them on its own. Fatty fish like salmon and albacore tuna are rich in two types of omega-3s — docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) — that are linked to lower levels of depression, Omega 3’s contribute to the fluidity of your brain’s cell membrane and appear to play key roles in brain development and cell signalling.

Dark chocolate

Dark chocolate may release a cascade of feel-good compounds, such as caffeine, theobromine, and N-acylethanolamine — a substance chemically similar to cannabinoids that has been linked to improved mood. It also contains flavonoids, which have been shown to increase blood flow to your brain, reduce inflammation, and boost brain health, all of which may support mood regulation.

Fermented foods

Consumption of live microorganisms support the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut and may increase serotonin levels. It’s important to note that not all fermented foods are significant sources of probiotics, such as in the case of beer, some breads, and wine, due to cooking and filtering. Up to 90% of your body’s serotonin is produced by your gut microbiome, or the collection of healthy bacteria in your gut. In addition, the gut microbiome plays a role in brain health. Research is beginning to show a connection between healthy gut bacteria and lower rates of depression.


They’re high in vitamin B6, which helps synthesise feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. One large banana (136 grams) provides 16 grams of sugar and 3.5 grams of fibre, when paired with fibre, sugar is released slowly into your bloodstream, allowing for stable blood sugar levels and better mood control. Blood sugar levels that are too low may lead to irritability and mood swings.


They’re an excellent source of fibre, providing 8 grams in a single raw cup (81 grams). Fibre helps slow your digestion of carbs, allowing for a gradual release of sugar into the bloodstream to keep your energy levels stable.


A diet rich in antioxidants may help manage inflammation associated with depression and other mood disorders. Berries pack a wide range of antioxidants and phenolic compounds, which play a key role in combatting oxidative stress — an imbalance of harmful compounds in your body. They’re particularly high in anthocyanins, a pigment that gives certain berries their purple-blue colour. If you can’t find them fresh, try buying frozen berries (ideally organic) — which are frozen at their peak ripeness to retain the maximum amount of antioxidants.

Nuts & Seeds

Nuts and seeds are high in plant-based proteins, healthy fats, and fibre. Additionally, they provide tryptophan, an amino acid responsible for producing mood-boosting serotonin. Almonds, cashews, peanuts, and walnuts, as well as pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower seeds, are excellent sources.

Black coffee (decaf is recommended if anxiety is troubling you).

The caffeine in coffee prevents a naturally occurring compound called adenosine from attaching to brain receptors that promote tiredness, therefore increasing alertness and attention. Moreover, it increases the release of mood-boosting neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and norepinephrine. Both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee significantly improved mood compared with a placebo beverage.

Foods that are rich in healthy bacteria


Kefir contains anywhere from 10 to 34 strains of probiotics. It is similar to yogurt, but because it is fermented with yeast and more bacteria, the final product is higher in probiotics and lower in lactose, making it a suitable choice for many who are lactose-intolerant.


Sauerkraut is not diverse in probiotics but is high in organic acids (what gives food its sour taste) that support the growth of good bacteria. It is high in vitamin C and digestive. It’s also a good source of natural lactic acid bacteria, such as lactobacillus. Kimchi is a cousin to sauerkraut and is the Korean take on cultured veggies.


Kombucha is an effervescent fermentation of black tea that is started by using a SCOBY, also known as a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. Primary health benefits include digestive support, increased energy and liver detoxification.


Natto contains the extremely powerful probiotic Bacillus subtilis, which has been proven to bolster your immune system, support cardiovascular health and enhance digestion of vitamin K2. Natto also contains a powerful anti-inflammatory enzyme called nattokinase that has been shown to prevent blood clotting and is loaded with protein.


Yoghurt, in most cases, can rank at the top of probiotic foods if it comes from grass-fed animals and has not been pasteurised.

Raw Cheese

Goats milk, sheep’s milk and A2 cow’s soft cheeses are particularly high in probiotics, including thermophillus, bifudus, bulgaricus and acidophilus. Always buy raw and unpasteurised cheeses if you want to receive any probiotics, as pasteurised and processed varieties are lacking in beneficial bacteria.

Apple cider vinegar

ACV can also help ramp up probiotic intake as well. Drink a small bit each day or use it as a salad dressing to maximise your results.

Brine-cured olives/pickles/gherkins

Olives that are brine-cured are an excellent source of probiotics. Like with salted gherkin pickles, be sure to select a product that is organic first. Also make sure that your olives don’t contain sodium benzoate, a food additive that can negate many of the health-promoting properties of this probiotic power-food. Tempeh

A fermented soybean product is another awesome food that provides probiotics. You can eat tempeh raw or by boiling it and eating it with miso. It can also be used as a substitute for meat in a stir fry meal and can be baked, grilled, marinated or sautéed. Miso

It is created by fermenting soybean, barley or brown rice with koji. Koji is a fungus, and the fermentation process takes anywhere from a few days to a few years to complete.

Raw Milk

Raw cows milk, goat’s milk, sheep’s milk and A2 aged cheeses are particularly high in probiotics. Just remember, all pasteurised dairy is devoid of healthy bacteria, so to get the probiotics, you need to stick to only high-quality, raw dairy that hasn’t been pasteurised.

Implementing some of these foods and activities into your daily life is a great simple way to support your overall wellbeing, mental health and immune function. If you need further support with gut health and mood you can purchase my gut/brain guide plus four week meal plan here or book in for one on one individualised plans here.

Jess Wharton

Registered Clinical Nutritionist, Gut Health Expert


1. Wellbeing statistics: 2018 | Stats NZ. (2021). Retrieved 11 November 2021, from

2. Wirth, M., Scherer, S., Hoks, R., & Abercrombie, H. (2011). The effect of cortisol on emotional responses depends on order of cortisol and placebo administration in a within-subject design. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 36(7), 945-954. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2010.11.010

3. Chattopadhyay, I., & Shankar, E. (2021). SARS-CoV-2-Indigenous Microbiota Nexus: Does Gut Microbiota Contribute to Inflammation and Disease Severity in COVID- 19?. Frontiers In Cellular And Infection Microbiology, 11. doi: 10.3389/fcimb.2021.590874

4. Yeoh, Y., Zuo, T., Lui, G., Zhang, F., Liu, Q., & Li, A. et al. (2021). Gut microbiota composition reflects disease severity and dysfunctional immune responses in patients with COVID-19. Gut, 70(4), 698-706. doi: 10.1136/gutjnl-2020-323020

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