Food-Mood Connection

For much of my life I was someone who could eat whatever I wanted and not gain weight. Great, right? Well sure, in some ways I guess it was, but in other ways–not so much. What it meant was that for a long time I didn’t have the impetus to think about what I was putting in my body. I lived off of dairy, simple sugars and other high carb foods (to my mother’s rightful horror) and never considered the impact those things might be having on me, which was decidedly not a good thing.

As an incredibly stressed out teenager I started having episodes of reactive hypoglycemia. If memory serves, I believe they began happening around the same time I started on the first (S)SRI–a class of drugs known to impact blood sugar in all kinds of nasty ways. Coincidence? But also I now know that many people who live in a constant state of sympathetic activation, fight/flight, (which I did) also tend to struggle with reactive hypoglycemia because of all the extra insulin the pancreas is constantly pumping out in preparation to fight or flee. I’ll never know what caused what and it was probably all of the above plus my crappy diet, and then some. Around the time I was starting college I went to the doctor about this issue and was essentially told to eat small meals frequently and have more complex carbs instead of simple sugars, none of which seemed to help much.

So for years I continued eating whatever high carb/high sugar foods I wanted, and also healthier foods that were still not the right balance of what my body needed. I continued to struggle with reactive hypoglycemia to the point where I never went anywhere without snacks in my purse and I even kept glucose tablets in my car after a couple of terrifying blood sugar drops while behind the wheel. I also continued to struggle with the feelings of depression, anxiety, and general dis-ease that had plagued me since I was quite young.

During my (S)SRI tapering journey I was introduced to the work of Kelly Brogan MD, a holistic psychiatrist who specializes in helping people come off their prescribed psychotropic drugs and address any physiological issues that might be part of the underlying cause of their symptoms. I read her first book “A Mind of Your Own” in which, among other things, she details a 30-day dietary and lifestyle reset protocol she uses with her patients. I decided to give it a try. I did not join any of the online subscription only programs or communities that she talks about in her works. I also didn’t have the bandwidth at the time to focus on much of the lifestyle portions of her program. I simply followed the dietary piece as it was laid out in the book at home myself.

A quick side note: I am not endorsing Kelly Brogan per se. Some of her work and beliefs unrelated to diet, psychiatric drugs, and safe tapering, I don’t think I agree with. That is okay. I have learned over the years that I don’t have to dismiss everything that a person or a resource has to offer just because I don’t like some things. Today I see these kinds of differences and discrepancies as opportunities to continue staying open, thinking critically for myself, and doing my own research–which is part of what being empowered and embodying my wholeness is all about!

The dietary portion of the month long reset was essentially a paleo diet. The rationale for this approach and for all of the other lifestyle recommendations were laid out and explained really well in the book, and I am not going to try and regurgitate any of it here. For the first 10 days I went through significant sugar withdrawals, even though I didn’t think I was eating that much sugar. It’s a thing, friends! Most of us don’t like to think about it but sugar is one of the most addictive substances there is. I expected to feel irritable and edgy but I didn’t expect the sense of sheer terror that I was met with off and on that first week-and-a-half. My nervous system was certain that a saber tooth tiger was about to eat me at any moment–it was that kind of terror, which was really humbling. But then on day 11 I woke up and it was like a switch had been flipped and I felt better than I had in I couldn’t remember how long… calm, clear headed, energized. It was amazing (and worth it).

My blood sugar started to stabilize for the first time since I was a teenager. I stopped having any kind of afternoon slump in my energy levels. I would watch my co-workers reach for their after lunch coffee like their lives depended on it while I felt steady and alert. My mood also felt even and steady in a way I am not sure it ever had before–certainly not ever in my adult life–and I felt a new sense of resilience. I really don’t have the words to adequately describe how transformative the whole experience was, actually. (And remember, I wasn’t even really following the rest of her program, just the food part).

When I get right down to it, I suspect that I could have avoided (S)SRI drugs all together if I had known as a teenager what I learned about the role of food in mood regulation/dysregulation during those 30 days. Bold proclamation I know, but today I believe it. It wouldn’t have solved all my problems but I think it would have made enough of a difference to keep the scale from tipping too far in the “I-just-cannot-cope-with-anything” direction. I also don’t think I would have successfully made it through the rest of my (S)SRI taper if it weren’t for having permanently implemented into my life many of the dietary changes this protocol brought about. Food matters! Food can be medicine, and it can also be poison. Which it becomes is largely up to us.

I also discovered through the 30 day reset and subsequent reintroduction of certain foods that I have a dairy intolerance, which I have likely had for most of my life. It got missed over the years by various GPs, internists, and a gastroenterologist alike who all specifically looked at dairy, because my symptoms never presented as gastric upset. Instead they presented as unrelenting skin related issues starting at age 6 or 7 that were given all kinds of different diagnoses over the years, none of which were ever successfully treated. Before doing this reset program I ate a lot of dairy, and I could not imagine my life without cheese. But my skin cleared up and stayed clear, and anytime I try to add back in even a little bit of dairy the problems begin to flare up again. I never would have known.

I also learned that for me, basically any grain causes significant blood sugar issues even when I combine those grains with healthy sources of protein and fat. I can have little bites here and there but when I occasionally decide to test the water and eat something like a bowl of (unsweetened) oatmeal, a rice-based dish, or the like, I notice that my energy is all over the map, my blood sugar is unsteady, and I feel irritable, anxious, and blue. Because I don’t usually eat this way anymore the difference is really noticeable. I feel terrible! And these were the kinds of foods I used to live off of. No wonder I felt terrible all the time. And again, I never would have known.

I really cannot stress enough what a night and day difference changing what and how I eat has made across the board for me on my journey. 

If you think that food might be having a negative impact on you in some way or even if you’re just curious to find out, you could consider trying some sort of elimination/reset dietary and lifestyle protocol. It doesn’t have to be Kelly Brogan’s and it doesn’t have to be paleo… there are a lot of different evidence-based elimination/reset kinds of diets out there. Do your own research and find one that jives with where you are on your journey. I can almost guarantee that it’ll be a really informative experience, however it ultimately shakes out!