I think I got my first taste of depression as a young girl, after I had been hospitalized for kidney failure at age five. I was always a sensitive child, but that event seemed to have made things harder for me. I never felt the same after. I certainly have attributed the altered mental state I experienced (hyper sensitive) to having gone through an ordeal at such a young age, but now I wonder if it was partly due to my body being run down by the kidney infection and all the treatments. People who are injured or sick often fall into depression. Perhaps it is because the body’s nutritional reserves are getting used up in the healing process?
My first major bout of depression was during my senior year of high school. During my junior year I had fallen for a guy who toyed with my heart and then dumped me. The summer between school years he made it clear that he didn’t want to have anything to do with me anymore. The depression took a while to fully set in (it was as though the sunshine of the summer was keeping it at bay). Ever read the Twilight saga? In the second book, between chapters 3 and 4, there are four pages that are completely blank except for OCTOBER, NOVEMBER, DECEMBER, and JANUARY on their respective pages. That was my senior year of high school. Four months of solid depression of which I remember very little. How did I eat in high school? Terribly. I had cold sugary crap cereal for breakfast, maybe a cup of cocoa or a Snickers bar. For lunch I had a sandwich and fruit if I remembered to pack it, otherwise I had the cheapest calorie-dense thing I could buy–a sugary-sweet, white flour muffin. Sometimes I opted for a soft pretzel with mustard. Dinners were usually better, but my dad was sick with cancer during this time, so it was either super-lowfat “healthy” food, or if my dad wasn’t home, it was often take-out from fast food restaurants. This episode of depression definitely had an emotional/psychological trigger, but I may have been able to deal with it better had I been on a more nourishing diet. I eventually came out of it, but unfortunately, it was only the beginning of many depressive episodes I would have.
I later determined that I had seasonal affective disorder, since the episodes seemed to bloom in the darker months of the year. I can point to stress as being a trigger in every episode (college courses, lack of money, evil boss, motherhood), but I believe the underlying cause was poor nutrition, and probably the several courses of antiobiotics I took. It’s funny, because I’ve always been super interested in health all my life. I tried to avoid over the counter drugs. As a kid I once gave up sweets for a few months, all in the name of health. I paid attention to all the health info, but I found it difficult to implement. College was especially detrimental to my diet. I was on the “starving student” budget and opted for the most calories for the lowest price, or I just got what was easy. I subsisted primarily on Fruity Pebbles cereal (I thought it was fine because it was fortified with loads of vitamins), corn tortilla and cheese quesadillas (cheese was probably my greatest source of protein and fat), and pasta with marinara sauce. Occasionally I ate meat, I tried to get a salad in a few times a week, and snacked on carrots almost daily in an attempt to get some natural vitamins. I ate out of cans and boxes a lot (mostly soups with veggies and pasta meals). Every year I resolved to eat better, and I would do a tiny bit better, but it was always so hard to eat in a balanced way. It’s quite obvious, looking back, that there were blatant nutritional deficiencies in my diet. No one can eat a diet like that without suffering some consequences. Young people are more resilient to the deleterious effects of poor nutrition, but eventually it catches up with us.
For me, it hit hardest when I had a baby, which I will get to in a moment. In the two years before I got pregnant, I was on Prozac, a popular antidepressant. I went on it in the month of October, soon after I started a two-year photography program at a community college. I was starting to feel my symptoms of anxiety and depression, and I knew they would only get worse under the stress of school and the upcoming winter months. I wanted to do well in school. As much as I hated taking drugs, I believed it was worth it to have a higher quality of life. And it was. I still believe that drugs are better than suffering, but I also believe that drugs have their own dangers, and healing the underlying condition is far better than relying on drugs indefinitely. I never gave up on that ideal. In the months before I got pregnant with my son, I did a bowel cleanse that improved my bowels, helping me to detox a bit better. My acne cleared a lot and I started to feel better. Next, I went on the Candida diet, which eliminates all forms of sugar. I was feeling even better. I went off of Prozac because I was planning to get pregnant and because I knew that long-term drug use had negative effects on the body. I felt amazing! Then I got pregnant. Even though I was eating better by then, my diet was not yet ideal and took a turn for the worse when morning sickness hit. After having a parasitic fetus (forgive the adjective, but they are) living and growing inside me for nine months and then breastfeeding, my nutritional reserves were depleted. I went downhill. I experienced anxiety like never before. I slept 14 hours a day. Some days, it was all I could do not to flip out (okay, so I did flip out…a lot).
It’s true this is common after having a baby–it’s called postpartum depression (although technically I didn’t feel depressed, probably because I forced myself to get out and socialize and I was high on baby love). I wonder why PPD affects up to 25% of women after having a baby? Lack of support probably has a lot to do with it, but what about nutritional depletion? I’m pretty sure that most women do not eat stellar diets when they are pregnant or when they have a newborn. Again, it goes back to not being able to handle stress well, which could very well be related to poor nutrition.
A couple years ago, about 18 months postpartum, I discovered that eating too much dairy gave me brain fog (this doesn’t happen to me with raw dairy, by the way, or if it does, not nearly to the same extent). I started to restrict my dairy intake. I also discovered that I was a classic case of a person that accumulates copper too well. People who have too much copper tend to be emotionally sensitive and even irrational. Zinc balances copper. I took a zinc supplement for a few weeks and it helped my mood a lot, but then it was affecting my bowels so I went off. However, zinc is found in high amounts in beef, so I started eating a lot more beef, and that really helped, so I have continued eating beef as my choice protein. I also started on a fish oil supplement, as I read it was good for the brain and helped with depression and anxiety (omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, which are in fish oil, are important for brain function). I could tell the fish oil helped.
Although these things alleviated my symptoms, they did not annihilate them. My diet improved throughout the year as we started eating more foods from scratch, and getting the rest of the fake food out of our diet. But the following winter, last winter, I still suffered from PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder). At this point, I started making big changes to my diet. My friend Cassie and her husband were eating a “primal” diet, which is essentially the paleo diet. Mainly, they weren’t eating grains or white sugar (they got much stricter on the diet as time when on). I didn’t agree with the philosophy of the diet, but it still got me thinking that we Americans eat too many carbohydrates. I started cutting back on grains and sugar. Since I was trying to eat more meat and veggies, I began eating some of my meals “primal” style, but not all. This meant no grains, no beans, no sugar, and MORE fat and protein for those meals. I didn’t go too high on the protein (due to my kidney concerns), but I let myself have all the fat I wanted. I ate a LOT of butter. I still did eat grains, just not as much. I was still restricting dairy at that point because I hadn’t found raw milk yet. All desserts became “primal” desserts–made with ground nuts instead of flour, and small amounts of honey or maple syrup instead of loads of white sugar. With these simple changes, I was doing much better!
That’s not the end of the story though. I’m sorry this is getting so long, but bear with me. That was last winter that I started to ease into a traditional/paleo diet. In February, I met with a nephrologist who put me on blood pressure meds. I was already suffering from adrenal fatigue and the medication just floored me. I slept a ton, which was something I needed anyway, so maybe that was good, but that medication was, in my mind, not worth the effect of lowering my blood pressure that was only a few points high. After a biopsy in March, I went off the medication and I went on CoQ10. My energy soared. Turns out, blood pressure medication can deplete the body’s reserves of CoQ10, which is why I saw such a dramatic improvement. I still take it occasionally when my energy feels low. But I wouldn’t have to if I ate organ meat. There is some in the meat I eat, but probably not as much as I need. Over the next months I went closer and closer to a traditional diet, and then I inched into a paleo diet in hopes of improving my digestion.
It seems that those who eat paleo are not plagued by emotional problems. I wondered why this was, because I still believe grains to be food, and I didn’t think we should need to completely abstain from them in order to be emotionally healthy. I found my answer in Gut and Psychology Syndrome. The paleo diet is actually only a few small steps away from a GAPS diet, and a GAPS diet can heal mood disorders like depression and anxiety. I had been inching my way, unknowingly, toward this diet that I very much needed. Changes I have made over the last year include eating more animal fat, cutting out grains (and other starches), cutting out white sugar (not that I ate a lot before, but even a little matters), eating more red meat and more protein in general (I still don’t eat a ton, but I was not getting enough before), eating more produce, switching to raw dairy, and taking vitamin D (4000IU in the summer and 7000IU in the fall/winter) , cod liver oil, and magnesium supplements. I absolutely believe all these things have helped me–every time I added one, I saw improvement. (I also take enzymes and probiotics for digestion because good digestion is necessary for assimilating nutrients.)
This winter, I am not suffering PMDD or SAD (I still get a little PMS though). I feel like a normal human being. I won’t say I feel fantastic, not at “Atlantean” status yet, but at least I feel like I can function like most healthy people around me. This is nothing short of a miracle for me. I believe my gut is healing (which was part of the problem) and when I officially start the GAPS diet, I am sure I will see more improvements. I know this was long, but I hope it helps someone. My focus here was on nutrition, but don’t forget that reducing stress and getting fresh air and exercise are important, too! Those are just so straightforward–it’s the nutrition that has gotten so complicated in this modern world of ours. (By the way, I still am not getting enough fresh air and exercise, so I can safely say those aren’t the reasons I am feeling better, but I am sure I would feel even healthier if I did them!)
I am currently working on a post that covers specific nutrients that are important for good mental health, so if you are interested in overcoming depression or related disorders, please stay tuned.