Anxiety- worry- panic- automatic negative thoughts- fearfulness. I’ve known these feelings intimately for as long as I can remember. Pounding heart- shallow breathing- flushed cheeks- I learned to live my life while experiencing these sensations- sometimes without warning. It was a badge of shame up until as a young adult I began learning about mental health and illness- after that I realized I wasn’t alone, and that in fact there are names for my experiences. I started identifying as someone with an anxiety disorder and tried to feel some sense of pride in this label.
I saw mental health therapists to help me deal with my anxiety for years. They taught me cognitive skills for managing my anxious thoughts. They helped me process past trauma and dysfunctional family dynamics that likely contributed to the development of these feelings. All of these tools helped me to extent. I didn’t feel as alone, and I felt like I understood the underlying reasons for these issues better. But even with this new insight, the anxiety was still there. No matter how much talk therapy I did, the anxiety didn’t really change.
Sometimes the symptoms were debilitating and I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed- or I’d cancel on events or experiences I really wanted to do because I was just too anxious. Other times I was able to stuff it down and carry on with my life- even forgetting it was there at times. All in all, I’ve managed to lead a very functional life considering the level of constant stress and worry that was always following me. But it still distressed me.
Fast forward to about two years ago: I started having serious and pervasive symptoms just vague and ambiguous enough that I could write them off as nothing. However, they kept getting worse and worse until I could no longer ignore them. I felt sick and miserable almost every day and I couldn’t explain why.
Eventually I was diagnosed with a rare and serious autoimmune disease called Mast Cell Activation Syndrome or MCAS. I could write extensively about the psychological process of coming to terms with the realities of this diagnosis- but I’m writing this for another reason.
I quickly became disillusioned with the traditional western and medical models for treatment. I kept asking, “But why? Why am I getting these symptoms? Why is my body reacting this way? What is the original cause?” And I got no answers: simply more medications and the insinuation that I was asking silly questions and just needed to accept being sick for the rest of my life.
This led me down the path of naturopathic, nutritional and other alternative treatments. In this new perspective, my body was fully capable of healing from illness, I just needed to support it with natural supplements, vitamins, dietary and lifestyle changes. I was so desperate for relief at this point that I dove in whole heartedly to all the recommendations.
The diet change was dramatic- I was instructed to eat a whole foods, ancestral diet- only vegetables, meat, fats and fruits. It was hard at first and I went through a very intense detox period where I felt worse than ever.
After surviving the detox, I have noticed small and slow but still significant improvements in my physical health, which I am hoping will continue over the years. However, one of the most shocking side effects of these dietary changes that I did not expect was what happened with my mental health.
My anxiety is gone. I remember this dawning on me as a close friend made a casual comment about how my “anxious brain” was coping with a particular stressful situation that was happening in my personal life. I thought about it… and found my self saying, “I actually don’t have an anxious brain anymore”. Sure, I felt nervous or stressed for a couple hours or a few days here and there in situations where it made sense to. But the chronic, unending, irrational, unnecessary sensations of anxiety that once followed me everywhere? Gone.
My body felt grounded. Calm. Slower. More in tune with myself and the world. Where did this feeling come from?
I had not had a sudden break through in therapy. I had not suddenly been using cognitive skills more intentionally than before. I had not “let go” of my past traumatic experiences in a new profound way. What had changed?
Primarily, my diet had. I had heard rumors about nutritional treatments for anxiety and other mental illnesses in the past, but I had always dismissed them. My issues were more serious than that, I believed. There was no way that simply changing my diet would change the types of thoughts I had in my head. The insinuation had almost been offensive to me in the past. I just didn’t buy it- until I experienced it for myself.
I started delving into the research around diet and nutrition’s effect on mental health. What I learned is that a huge part of our nervous system lives in our guts- highly sensitive nerves are wrapped all the way around our stomach and digestive systems. The quality of our nervous system- including how we behave, how we feel, our emotions, our thoughts, our perceptions- is influenced by the make up of gut bacteria that live in our stomach lining. Certain gut bacteria species- ones that feed on sugars, heavy carbohydrates and processed foods- tend to correlate with the nervous system sending distress signals from the gut to the brain, and can cause shifts in brain chemistry that exacerbate anxiety and depression. These “bad bacterias” can be flushed out with a whole foods and high nutrient diet, and slowly get replaced with new, healthier bacteria species. These “good bacteria” also send cues through the nervous system and into the brain: sending signals of calmness, and boosting brain chemicals that cause feelings of wellbeing. These changes take time- at least six months of dietary changes before mental changes generally start. But there is in fact a scientific basis to believing that nutrition changed by mental health.
I wanted to share my story because I spent so many years in talk therapy and never seemed to improve beyond a point, and after a while I just believed it never would- I thought I was destined to be anxious forever. After six to eight months after dramatically changing my diet- I no longer feel like I have an anxiety disorder anymore at all.
This is not to say that I believe all anxiety and depression comes for poor diet. There are many multifaceted layers to mental health and wellness- diet simply being one of them. I also don’t believe this means that you should go out and try to convince everyone in your life to dramatically change their diets for the sake of their mental wellbeing. Not all people are capable of that for a variety of social and socioeconomic reasons.
But it’s now something that I always keep in the back of my mind, and offer as a possible course of action to people who may feel open to it. After my personal experience with nutritional medicine and the relief of my mental health symptoms, I can’t ever dismiss the connection between them again.