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Start from the inside

Yesterday was pancake day, a true celebration of carbs, dairy and chocolate spread out over as many meals as possible in just one day. If we're being true to the original sentiment of Shrove Tuesday, we would of course set out to empty the entire house of all the sweet and yummy things in cupboards, drawers and the secret under-pillow stash (just me?) setting ourselves up for a very hungry and frankly dour Lent where we should really be fasting in daylight hours, reflecting, praying, and contemplating the meaning of life. Um, can I choose secret option B please?

Even if you've never experienced the pain of fasting, you'll no doubt know only too well the gaping void where not just food, but entertainment, stimulation and daily activity once resided. Just when we think that we've got a plan for something a bit different for today's lockdown walk - turning right at the end of the block rather than left (contain your excitement, I beg you) - suddenly we're hit with more restrictions, or at least the loss or stalling of a endpoint, and constant updates and reiterations of this in the news.

Which is why I've decided that returning to the consistent comfort of food is absolutely very very necessary. Hyperbole 100% intended. Sorry not sorry. I'm happy to admit I don't subscribe to the idea of fasting: the avoidance of food and/or water for long periods of time. If your kidneys don't protest, and you don't meet with my professional raised eyebrow, you'll find that being 'hangry' is a very real and unpleasant reality. We are, to put it bluntly, miserable when we are hungry. And this has very important implications for mental wellbeing, clearly.

Anyone who's been in my consultation room or on the end of a phone-call will have been subjected to a dietary Spanish inquisition, and this is because 1 - I am nosey, 2 - I love food, 3 - I usually need second breakfast by 10am so must live vicariously through the meal-plan chat from my patients, and 4 - I like to know that my patients are eating three healthy meals a day because I know it's good for them. Almost every single medical condition we see as doctors can be helped or hindered by what we put into our bodies. Trust me, even if you don't feel like your body resembles a beautiful temple visually, remember that on the inside are all sorts of wonderful and exciting treasures, medically speaking at least. And they require regular culinary caressing so that they can work properly. Would you expect a car to run properly on low petrol? Would you expect your wonderful solar panels to provide useful energy to the grid without sunshine? So isn't it reasonable to expect your brain to need adequate energy in order to think clearly and send the right messages to your very excellent body?

And as well as thinking clearly, there's the rollercoaster of emotions that lockdown has forced many of us to experience. Uncertainty, hope, fear, excitement, anger, joy, resentment, gratitude, sadness, and acceptance. The yo-yoing between being allowed to see loved ones and not; between going out further than the ring road and not; between going to school and not; and between working from a makeshift desk in the under-stairs cupboard or taking over the dining room at the expense of your household's sanity, and actually going physically into your workplace. And brains do not like yo-yoing, I can tell you. Medical fact. We aren't meant to be robust in that sense. Nobody has to cope or be fine. It's ok to struggle, in fact it's normal. If you think everyone else is managing and juggling perfectly, they're probably just doing a very good job of making it look like that. And maybe feeling much more downbeat on the inside. Go on, ask the question "how are you, actually?".

Mental wellness is such a lynchpin in our lives. Remember my fuel chit-chat above? Well you probably wouldn't expect your muscles to function with zero calories in, and your brain needs the same. Feed it with yummy nutritious things and you'll be amazed at the difference. And conversely if you ply it with junk, you know you'll crash soon afterwards, and there'll be other health ramifications as well. Excessive alcohol can feel fun at the time but there's weight gain, palpitations, indigestion and anxiety to be suffered if it carries on long-term. Fatty fried fast-foods are tasty but high in cholesterol. Have pity on your slowly narrowing arteries! And chocolately snacks are fine as a treat, but don't make them your 3 meals a day (though my junior editor has piped up with the helpful suggestion of chocolate spread on wholemeal pittas to incorporate slow-release carbs "cos that makes it okay". Not exactly what I had in mind *bangs head against brick wall*).

Well hang on, dark chocolate is so great at lots of things, chiefly releasing endorphins. And we lurve these. They are happy hormones, and they make us feel like Tony the Tiger. Or Mr Motivator. And other foods can promote these hormones as well, and help your nerves send signals more efficiently. Cloves, green tea, onions - may sound like a weird and terrifying bag contents on Ready Steady Cook, but actually these are excellent ingredients to help blow depression out of the water.

Having trouble sleeping? Then you might be short of tryptophans, which can be found in turkey, bananas, nuts and seeds, and yoghurt. And berries like blueberries and raspberries (and many other colourful fruits and veggies) are not only high in antioxidants and vitamin C to help keep those gums nice and healthy and heal wounds, they can reduce cortisol levels thereby helping you destress. Annoyingly they often come in plastic packaging but at least some places are working to make punnets from cardboard. And cashew nuts come into their own here; they're a great source of zinc, which has been found to be lower in people with depression. But good luck finding any in York because most of them are on the shelf in my kitchen, as they are yummy snacks and also make a mean faux-cheese sauce for vegan lasagne! And finally, saffron. Close your eyes and be transported to ancient Persia 3000 years ago, with the sweet delicate fragrance that features in Paella and "yellow rice" as my junior editors like to call it. Yes it's more expensive than gold (by weight), and it really is very handsome-looking. Plus it has held its own in trials pitted against antidepressants and also anti-Alzheimer's drugs. Amazing right?!

Now friends, gather round and remember there are some foods to avoid. Like artificial sweeteners, found lazing about on coffee cup saucers, and in fizzy drinks. Don't get me started on the annoying sachets which are so tiny they might fall through gaps in the recycling plant if they even make it that far, but their main ingredient aspartame can block serotonin which is one of my all-time-fave endorphins. And quick-release carbs like refined sugar (sweets, breakfast cereals, BBQ sauce (sob), and many fruit yoghurts) are really not great when it comes to keeping on top of your mood.

My lovely friend and fellow creative writer has a clever section of recommendations on her blog, with ideas of what to 'read', 'do', and 'watch', etc, that has helped her and her household make life a little easier during lockdown, and I'm going to suggest she has 'eat' on there too! If we're thinking about it in terms of stimulating the senses, then let's not forget our taste-buds. Follow the tips above, and try and build strength from the inside and you might be pleasantly surprised.

So I wish you happy experimenting with brightly coloured fruit and veg next week, and some tasty slow-release carbs to keep your brain satisfied and feeling a smidge happier! Maybe give saffron with wholemeal pasta a go? But take care, it costs a pretty penne...

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