Note from Lauren: Please meet my friend Holly. I knew she was a Soul Sister when I read her post, “How My Health Crisis Became My Identity Crisis.” We connected over email and she told me we had met before. I immediately remembered the nutrition conference earlier this year where I first met Holly for only a brief moment. She had looked at me with her whole soul, and some tears, in her eyes. She thanked me for sharing Empowered Sustenance because it has supported her own healing. At the time, I didn’t know the story of Holly’s healing journey, or that she had a blog where she was sharing resources.
I asked her if she would share her story with all of you. Holly articulately, courageously, and vulnerably shares her healing journey. After reading this, you will know her, as I do, as a true writer and kindred spirit.
It came out of nowhere.
When I was 25, I walked into a grocery store and became fully convinced that everyone in sight hated me and wanted me to disappear. It got worse from there: I couldn’t get out of bed until 3 p.m., if at all. I drank an entire bottle of wine (sometimes two) every night to quell full-body shaking and a mind that wouldn’t stop repeating nasty, self-abusive mantras.
Up until then, I had always been melancholy, but I had always managed. For the most part, I did a pretty good job of hiding my low-level depression, and while it certainly hindered parts of my life, it never kept me from living it.
Then one day, quite abruptly, it did.
With the encouragement of my husband, I started therapy. And with the encouragement of my therapist, I saw a psychiatrist. Between the two of them, I was given a laundry list of diagnoses: major depression, bipolar type II, social anxiety, avoidant personality disorder, and agoraphobia were just a few of my new labels.
Talk therapy helped, but I was still in so much emotional pain that I couldn’t live a normal life. Without a second thought, I decided to try antidepressants. “Medication will be your lifejacket while we get you back to shore,” said my therapist.
Great, I thought. Because I don’t think I can swim anymore.
My experience with antidepressants, benzos, and mood stabilizers
Zoloft. Lexapro. Lamictal. Wellbutrin. Xanax. Prozac. Over the course of a year and a half, I cycled through all of these medications — and more — at progressively increasing doses. I’d feel a little better, but then I’d hit a slump, so my psychiatrist would switch the med or bump the dose. Wash, rinse, repeat.
It all felt like Whack-a-Mole — an unwanted mood would rear its head, and we’d find a metaphorical hammer to beat it into submission.
I didn’t care. I desperately wanted to feel better, and I trusted that my healthcare providers were steering me down the right path. But after a while, it wasn’t just my symptoms that were beaten down — my entire person was beaten down. Heart and soul, body and brain.
My moods no longer spiked or dipped — they merely flatlined, and the only thing I felt was apathy. I was content to sit in front of the TV, watching hours-long marathons of Seinfeld. My creativity and libido all but vanished, and I quickly put on 60 pounds, ballooning from a size 10 to a size 18. Sure, I wasn’t suicidal, but now I was a different kind of depressed — I barely recognized myself.
I started Googling like crazy, and my search history looked something like this:
- How to lose weight on antidepressants
- Best and worst drugs for bipolar type II
- Sex drive lost with Zoloft
The only answers I found were on obscure message boards where everyone had cryptic usernames. Manicguy27 swore by Wellbutrin, but beatingdepressiongirl said it made her paranoid and suppressed her appetite. Some people lost weight; other people gained weight. I spent hours on these boards, trying to find common threads. People shared their symptoms, their side effects, their horror stories. I lurked obsessively, hoping my answer was just a new prescription away.
I felt such deep shame and loneliness in all of this.
When I tried to talk to my psychiatrist, I was told that I’d likely be on meds for the rest of my life, and side effects were just part of the deal. My family doctor — an MD at the University of Michigan — told me the literature showed zero correspondence between SSRIs and weight gain, and that I simply needed to exercise more.
I felt tired, broken, and hopeless. A new kind of listless low.
But I wasn’t ready to give up, so I switched psychiatrists. I quit therapy. I tried a new cocktail of drugs. I got nowhere.
After months of introspection and research, I decided to come off all medications. It was a risk, but with my rapidly declining health, I knew I had to take it. My psychiatrist helped me through the tapering process, and though I had severe withdrawal symptoms — fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and dramatic mood swings — I made it through.
Transforming my mood with nutrition
After coming off meds, I didn’t plummet back into deep depression, but I was far from happy.
My biggest concern at that point was losing the 60 pounds I’d gained, so I started playing around with diet and exercise. I counted calories, stuck to low-fat options, and huffed and puffed on the elliptical. My weight wouldn’t budge, and I constantly felt hungry and exhausted.
Eventually, I stumbled across The Whole30 program and decided to give it a shot, even though it was radically different from other approaches I’d tried. It eliminates grains, dairy, legumes, sugar, processed foods, and additives, then teaches you how to add them back strategically to see how your body responds.
Thirty days later, I was down six pounds, but I also noticed something completely unexpected — for the first time in many years, I felt a genuine sense of happiness, playfulness, and positivity. My mood had transformed.
Is this all a total coincidence? I wondered.
I quickly learned that it wasn’t. When I reintroduced sugar and wheat — foods that I used to eat on a regular basis — my pulse quickened, my anxiety skyrocketed, and my cloud of dark thoughts returned with a vengeance.
Shocked and confused, I threw myself into research. I started Googling like crazy, but this time, my search history looked different:
- Connection between nutrition and mental health
- Wheat sensitivity and depression
- Can sugar cause anxiety?
I learned that there is a profound connection between nutrition and mental health, and that body-based imbalances can mirror psychiatric symptoms. Food sensitivities, digestive dysfunction, blood sugar imbalances, nutrient deficiencies, and other issues can lead to symptoms that present as textbook mood disorders.
I felt simultaneously empowered and livid. Throughout my treatment, no one had ever suggested that my diet could be contributing to my mental health issues. Knowing what I know now, I believe that nutritional imbalances were the root cause of my so-called mood disorders.
Joining the crusade for a new paradigm in mental health
It’s been almost three years since I completed that first Whole30, and I continue to eat very closely to the program. With strategic dietary modifications and targeted supplementation, my depression and anxiety disappeared. I lost the weight I gained, I’ve stayed medication-free, and I’m the healthiest (and happiest!) I’ve been in my entire life.
Every day, I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude for the way things turned out.
I went back to school and became a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner. Now, I specialize in nutrition for mental health, and I help individuals who are in the same place I was: hurting, confused, and looking for lasting answers to their challenges with mood.
If you or someone you know is struggling with any type of mental health issue, I highly recommend you consider the tips outlined below.
3 things I wish my psychiatrist would have told me when I was diagnosed with mental illness
1. Start an anti-inflammatory diet immediately.
More and more research is showing that depression and other mood disorders stem from inflammation. Adopting an anti-inflammatory diet designed to soothe digestive issues and balance blood sugar is your best bet for healing. Paleo, Whole30, and GAPS are great templates to start with, as is the phenomenal protocol outlined in psychiatrist Kelly Brogan’s book, A Mind of Your Own.
In addition to calming inflammation, these diets can also help you ferret out food sensitivities and common triggers, such as wheat, sugar, or dairy. Stick to an approach for a minimum of 30 days before making adjustments.
2. Even if you have trauma, nutrition can help.
If your mood issues stem from emotional trauma — an abusive childhood, a devastating breakup, or the loss of a loved one — you might assume that nutrition has nothing to do with your situation. However, long-term emotional stress triggers the “fight-or-flight” response in your body, which can lead to chronic inflammation.
An anti-inflammatory diet will help to reduce this phenomenon and send your body signals of safety. Once you address the physical roots of depression and anxiety, your mood will begin to stabilize, making it much easier to address trauma through talk therapy and other modalities.
3. How you approach your diagnosis is more important than the diagnosis itself.
Our culture stigmatizes people with mental health issues and paints them as “damaged goods.” If you’re on the receiving end of a diagnosis, you might feel like your brain is broken and you’re doomed to feel this way forever. Remember, mental health diagnoses are based on clusters of symptoms, and symptoms can have many origins.
The body is an interconnected system, and nothing is ever “all in your head.” Instead of viewing the diagnosis as an irreversible sentence, approach it from a place of curiosity: What is your body trying to tell you, and why? Avoid relating to your diagnosis as part of your permanent identity — you are not your diagnosis. Instead, use it as an informative clue on your journey to healing.
Before I go, I want to make one thing very clear: I am not here to shame medications or convince you of a single approach. Decisions about mental health care are incredibly personal, and you have to make the decision that’s right for you.
But in order to make an informed decision, you need just that: information. And you shouldn’t have to lurk on obscure online message boards to find it.
Join me in breaking the stigma surrounding mental illness — an incredibly common challenge with incredibly complex roots. If you feel called to, share this article, or share your own experience in the comments. You never know whose life might change because of it.
Holly Higgins is a writer and Nutritional Therapy Practitioner specializing in nutrition for mental health. Follow her work and get in touch at www.pillstopaleo.com.