COVID-19 pandemic: Food or mood swings?

You need to avoid certain habits and eat the right foods to improve your state of mind.

Coffee reduces the level of serotonin (a relaxation hormone) in the brain. When serotonin levels are lowered, you can become depressed and feel irritable.   -  AFP

The coronavirus pandemic has unearthed a large number of demons in most players. The lockdown has severely tested players in all ways. No practice, no tournaments, no travelling for competitions, not even leaving your own house. Gyms are closed. There is no allowance, no salary, no funding. This has led to a series of reasons such as:

“I cannot stay in my hostel or PG.”

“I have to leave home. There is no stadium to practise at in my home town. And I am locked up.”

“I must eat the food my mother made with love.”

“I am watching TV for 14 hours a day. I am eating and sleeping all the time. I am gaining weight.”

“I am out of shape. Let me start running. The cops are chasing me to stay home.”

“Let me order some tasty food from the local dhaba. I am feeling so depressed. An ice-cream will cheer me up. There is a long movie, let me order biryani. I can’t work out, I will start next week. SIGH!!!”

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Does this sound remotely close?

Many of my players worked on their diets during the lockdown. Look at Virat Kohli, Mayank Agarwal, Shardul Thakur and Shreyas Iyer. They all grabbed the opportunity to work on their diets even through the lockdown.

Weak players whined. Undisciplined players disappeared. They did not want to do a nutrition plan. It’s strange how nutrition affects your mood. Recently I had a distressed player come to me claiming he was depressed! I consoled the player and asked him to work on small goals every day and to call me daily. During those simple calls, I observed that he was eating wrong. I told him so and he said eating has nothing to do with his depression. I asked him to give me three days to convince him it’s the truth. Food can be a demon. My team of nutritionists and I researched about this at Qua Nutrition Clinics and came up with a protocol called FOODS and MOODS!

The food we eat releases either good or bad nutrients in the gut. These nutrients enter the bloodstream and can either harm or heal your body. The most critical element that I look for is whether the food is activating or deactivating any hormones.


Hormones are chemical messengers that can have a powerful influence on the brain and your mental well-being. When hormone levels are balanced, you tend to have stable moods and feel energetic, motivated and mentally sharp. However, when hormone levels are out of whack, you may experience symptoms associated with psychiatric illnesses, such as depression. Symptoms can include:

  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Mood swings
  • Fatigue
  • Brain fog
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Low libido
  • Lack of motivation
  • Trouble concentrating

You have to avoid doing all the below to improve your state of mind:

Eating a diet high in refined sugar: Consuming too much sugar disrupts normal hormone function and can result in excessive levels of estrogen in relation to progesterone, which increases the risk of mood swings, depression and anxiety. Sugar quickly enters the bloodstream, resulting in a surge of energy. Then that surge starts to wear off as the body secretes insulin to remove the sugar from your bloodstream. The sudden dip causes you to feel low. Moral: Don’t eat high sugar foods!

Drinking coffee and caffeinated drinks: Caffeine, or coffee as a classic example, is taken when you want a boost of energy. Coffee reduces the level of serotonin (a relaxation hormone) in the brain. When serotonin levels are lowered, you can become depressed and feel irritable.

Eating processed food, at restaurants or ordering out: Our team found online research that showed eating a diet of processed and fatty foods increases the risk of depression. In one study, participants who predominantly ate processed meat, fried food, sweetened desserts and high-fat dairy products had a 58 percent higher risk of depression than those who ate “whole” foods, such as fish and vegetables.

Artificial sweeteners in low-calorie foods: Aspartame hinders the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin. We see athletes ingesting diet soda and the chemical sweeteners that can cause headaches, insomnia and changes in mood.

Cooking in hydrogenated oil: Hydrogenation is a process that turns vegetable oil into a more solid form, which makes it a more shelf-stable product. Anything that is cooked with hydrogenated oils and contains trans fats could potentially contribute to depression. Saturated fats, like the ones found in processed meats, high-fat dairy and butter, can clog arteries and prevent blood flow to the brain — and affect optimal brain function. My suggestion is to try cold-pressed oils and do a nutrition gene test to determine which fat suits your body – there are MUFAs (monounsaturated fatty acids), PUFA (polyunsaturated fatty acids) and saturated fats. Once, a female athlete did a genetic test after which we changed her oils to a more natural and genetically adaptable choice in her diet; her mother called me back in a week and said: “I have never seen my daughter so happy!”

Eating high-sodium foods: Extra salt can attack your neurological system. Not only can this directly contribute to depression, but it can also disturb the immune system response and cause fatigue. Excess salt also leads to fluid retention and bloating. For active sportspersons, I allow high sodium to replenish the salts lost. But players have a high tastebud threshold for salt, and during the lockdown they continued to eat salty food. Well, that may cause more salty tears due to depression.

Avoid eating gluten: A 2012 study out of Oslo University Hospital showed that a group of human subjects that was consuming gluten after six weeks of a gluten-free diet reported 90 percent more depression as a result, compared with the control group that stayed gluten-free.

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