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 HollyFisherHiggins.com
All the best!
Thanks for sharing. I am weaning off Effexor, an SSRI and it is horrible! I have been on it along with various other medications to counter the side affects for 12 years. Beginning in January of this year I began weaning and am only half way through the process. It is brutal! I, like you, have found that my diet makes a huge difference in how I feel. I am currently gluten free. Eliminating gluten helped me lose 15 pounds.
Way to go! I understand that Effexor is one of the most difficult antidepressants to taper off of, so my heart goes out to you. Congrats on your victories without the gluten. Eliminating it can make such a huge difference, as you’ve experienced.
Hi Lauren and Sandra! Lauren, thank you so much for all of the amazing info you are providing. I just stumbled on your website today, and I’m so grateful for it. Sandra, I wanted to know if I might be able to contact you and ask about your continued journey tapering off of Effexor. I have been on it for over 20 years now! Devastating to think about… And daunting to think about trying to wean myself off of it, but I really want to. Is there an email address where I could reach you directly? Thank you so much!
Sorry, Holly! I meant to thank you for this brave and helpful article in my previous comment!!! All the best to you! 🙂
I’m glad this article was helpful to you Catherine! Holly offers private coaching to help clients heal depression naturally, so you might reach out to her if you want some support.
Thank you for bravely sharing your story with us; while I never took medication for depression and anxiety, I have certainly had both, and pretty severely. At that time, (and this continues now, although to a lesser degree) I was not in a financial position to access much help in the way of therapy, doctor visits, or prescriptions, but was nonetheless going through severe physical, emotional, and mental health challenges.
I “researched” and experimented on my own, reading (much like you did) anything I could find online about what was working for people. Eventually, I discovered that without knowing it was its own actual plan or protocol, I ended up following the autoimmune paleo protocol, and things were getting better all around.
I have been strictly following this way of eating and its lifestyle (lifestyle is harder, but worth every effort!) for about 18 months at this point, and when I look back, it is clear to me that I have made tremendous progress. There is still much healing to be done, and I recognize now that while the needs I have often make me feel different and “high maintainance” when compared to others, that trying to deny myself the things I need to be healthy and feel good only exacerbates any challenge I face and makes things harder still. (And makes me even more high maintainance!)
Like Lauren, I prepare and cook all my own food; it has been over two years since I have eaten in a restaurant, and only a handful of times have I eaten at the home of either a friend or family member. (The rules of AIP can be daunting for those who are unfamiliar!) It is absolutely worth it to me to know where my food is coming from, how it is prepared, and how it will make me feel!
I think one of the toughest things for many people is letting go of the notion of food as “entertainment” or reward; so much of our social interactions involve food, and much of that food is not conducive to maintaining our health. I am sure I am only repeating what many already know, but it feels worth mentioning. It can be hard to still feel a part of things if there is no “safe” food at a gathering. I would encourage people to do what they feel they need to in order to avoid the foods they know are not nourishing to them; bring safe foods with you anytime you can, and know that you can probably do this more often than you would think! The people that love us just want us to be happy and feel good, and the people who don’t, well, it hardly matters what they think! 😉
I am grateful to people like you, Lauren, and many others who continue to share your storied and knowledge so publicly gracefully. Continue to shine so that we all may do so!
Thanks for your comment! I too have been made to feel “high maintenance” or “fussy” for the way I eat in social situations. Over time, I have learned not to take it personally — it’s usually coming from other peoples’ insecurity, or the fact that they just don’t understand how food impacts you.
I have had this exact same conversation with friends … it’s unfortunate how much socializing revolves around food, because it can make it difficult for people with sensitivities. The best thing you can do is prepare and bring your own food, if need be. (I’m usually the girl with hardboiled eggs in my purse!) Over time, I came to OWN my so-called “pickiness,” because it is the ultimate act of standing up for myself and my body. If other people want to bully me and make nasty comments (and they still do!), well, their loss … they probably don’t feel good in their bodies.
Best of luck to you. It gets better, easier, and more rewarding with each passing day!
Hi Holly. I, myself, only have mild depression, but that comes from dealing with a family with physical and mental health issues.
I do, however, have an 18 yr old daughter suffering with anxiety and depression. She hasn’t been officially diagnosed, but suffers terribly. She has seen 3 therapists and a psychiatrist. and gotten no where. (The first told her that other people had worse problems so she should be glad hers weren’t that bad! And to “not let the emotional vampires drain her”. The second, unbeknownst to us was only there temporarily while they found a replacement. Ditto for the third. The psychiatrist told her what she already knew so was a waste of time.) The only suggestion she got was antidepressants. Then he suggested SAMe, which is a supplement, when she turned down the drugs, that was supposed to help. It didn’t.
After reading your article some time ago, Holly, I remembered it when my daughter had been having back to back severe panic attacks a week or so ago. I’m thankful I did as I eliminated wheat from her diet and saw a huge improvement!! So thank you from the bottom of my heart for posting this and thank you for reposting it as I couldn’t remember where I saw it:*) (that’s part of my issues; memory is poor)
She has had anxiety for years due to bullying at school; to the point of being homeschooled from second semester of grade 10 through grade 12. But it got really bad about 2 weeks ago when her one and only friend moved an hour away. She suffers from catastrophic thinking, black and white thinking as well as absolute thinking, which means her thoughts automatically turn to her friend moving away and never returning; that she has betrayed her because she never intended to return even though she said she would; and, this ALWAYS happens with everyone she is friends with. Her mind tends to look for every bad thing that has ever happened to her to try to prove itself right. The panic attacks started, then she felt like there was a lump in her throat which makes her think it’s something life threatening, which brings on more panic. I actually took her to emerg at one point which was pointless, as the dr had no clue and could only suggest a scope down her throat if it persisted! She can still feel the lump and has difficulties eating so is limited to jello, pudding, salmon, cheese, etc, ANYthing soft. Everything else makes the lump feel worse and makes her feel like the food is getting stuck. She has also had difficulties with food for some time; doesn’t feel motivated to eat and feels like she is going to throw up when she tries. She literally has to forage herself to eat some days! Other days she has a healthy appetite. She says it started after she got braces, so thought maybe she should get tested for heavy metal toxicity.
Since I took her off wheat and her friend dropped in unexpectedly for a brief visit, she has been much happier and her panic attacks have all but stopped! The other thing I have given her that helps is an L-theanine supplement. The one I used says it’s “sunthanine” which seems to work better than the l-theanine one. I used SISU brand and Natural Factor brand.
The other options I am investigating for her are: Lauren’s brand new company MEO Energetics. The Anxiey Release and Brain Deflame for sure and possibly the Vagal Tone. I think these could really help her.
Also, I go to a Nutritional Therapist for my health issues and she has done WONDERS for my digestive health. (I suffered from gluten issues and got to the point of bloating from ANYthing! I also had years of fatigue and brain fog and being told by the dr that I was tired because I was a women and we are always tired!) She does dried and live blood analysis. She can tell organ health, hormone levels, yeast, parasites, toxicity, heavy metals, etc! She immediately told me I had too much yeast in my digestive tract that was causing a lot of my problems! Also, poor digestion, heavy metals, and kidneys/liver not working properly, adrenal fatigue. I am on homeopathic supplements and have to cut out wheat, corn, soy, dairy, sugar and processed foods. I really feel that this lady could do wonders for my daughter! She could pinpoint the foods she is sensitive to and would know the correct supplements to take. She is thinking of going to her.
Another technique I would love her to try is Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) or Tapping. It is a combination of psychology and tapping on Chinese pressure points to give the amygdaloid the message to calm down, that there is no emergency. Unfortunately, my daughter says the tapping is very irritating to her. Maybe one day…
Thanks again for the article Holly and thank you Lauren for posting Holly’s article and for your other posts and starting MEO Energetics! I hope some of what helped my daughter and my other ideas can help someone else.
It sounds like you are making great progress with your daughter! Yes, I would advocate having her see a Nutritional Therapist. I’m also a huge advocate of any kind of energy work, including EFT. Energy work was a huge part of my healing, and I haven’t talked about it much, but I plan to in the near future. I personally just became a Reiki Master Practitioner and hope to use this in my work with clients. And yes, definitely check out the oils from MEO! They are phenomenal.
Wishing you all the best,
When my granddaughter was about 18 months old (she’s now six), she not only wasn’t starting to talk, she wasn’t even babbling. I asked my daughter about it, and she said she’d been thinking about it too; she subsequently took her to a speech therapist, who diagnosed her with apraxia, a neurological speech disorder, where the neurons don’t connect with the vocal apparatus. The prognosis is bleak; most children only learn very few words in a lifetime, and can’t organize either the letters/sound of words themselves, or the order in which they go. They are, in effect, virtually mute, unable to communicate the simplest of concepts.
My daughter and I weren’t willing to accept this prognosis; we commenced almost constant research. I remembered an article I had read years ago, about autistic children whose illness was reversed with a combination of EFAs, or essential fatty acids, and a medication. I wondered if there were a connection between autism and apraxia, and discovered that there was; although some autistic children have apraxia, not every child with apraxia is also autistic. Thankfully, my granddaughter wasn’t autistic; she could understand and respond to speech, but couldn’t produce it. Sometimes she would say a word, and the next day it was just gone into the ether, not to be repeated.
I found the article I had read all those years ago, and there were some amazing stories, like that of a young boy who didn’t speak. However, his parents had reason to think that he could actually read, but couldn’t communicate what he understood. Within two weeks on this protocol, he was sitting on the doctor’s table, spotted a jar on a shelf across the room, and said very clearly, “Could I have a Jolly Rancher, please?” This proved that his parents had been right; he could not only speak, he could read–and this was after about seven years without speaking! I sent an article about a university research study on the effect of EFAs on autistic children to my daughter, who was reading similar articles on her own. She took her daughter, along with article(s) on the subject, to a nutritionist at a children’s hospital, who agreed to give her very high doses of EFAs, along with tests to ensure that they weren’t having a negative impact on her liver. I also wondered if perhaps she was suffering with food sensitivities, so even if she was getting a good diet, she wasn’t absorbing what she ate. I knew of a therapy called NAET, or Nambudripad’s Allergy Elimination Technique, which actually eliminates allergies and sensitivities. I recommended that to my daughter too, so she also started her on NAET treatments also. It turned out she had myriad food sensitivities, so these were treated along with the nutritional therapy and speech therapy.
These three therapies were started around late autumn. She very quickly started to say and remember words, and on the very first week of high-dose Vitamin E, which was started later, she started to put these words together into sentences. Long story a little shorter, by the following spring she was re-tested, and scored in the high 80th percentile for expressive speech, and in 90-something percentile for receptive speech. So she was in around the top 10-15% of all children in speech ability! I asked my daughter if she thought there was any way she could have been misdiagnosed, and she said absolutely not; of the many markers for apraxia, my granddaughter had almost all of them. Her speech therapist said she had never seen a recovery like that in all the time she had been practicing. My daughter has since become a nutritional therapist herself, and plans to go on to get a Master’s degree in nutrition. Meanwhile, my granddaughter is a delightful child, often talking like a babbling brook; she also has a wonderful sense of humor. Recently my daughter saw her talking to her reflection in the mirror, and asking herself, “Am I sassy and silly and nice?” and immediately answered herself, “I am!” Then she added, “Also I’m cute–and tall for my age.”
So, with your daughter, don’t give up. Although the particular problems are not the same, often nutritional therapy can be remarkably effective for all types of neurological, behavioral, and mood disorders, as can NAET. The development of this modality is an amazing story in itself, which you can read about in the book, Nambudripad’s Allergy Elimination Technique. It’s an amazing story, replete with non-stop determination and serendipity, as Dr. Nambudripad herself suffered from practically every allergy/sensitivity under the sun. It has also often had an amazing effect on problems that are thought to be purely mental or emotional, like bi-polar disorder, in which even seemingly intractable cases have been completely resolved. In fact, Dr. Nambudripad has written that often the only symptom of an allergy or a sensitivity is mental or emotional. I highly recommend the book; also, you can go to her website to help locate a practitioner. Since we have experienced the effectiveness of the two therapies together, I highly recommend the combination.
Good luck and best wishes!
Thank you for sharing your story with us. And as someone with experience , i was hoping you would be able to help.
I am 17 years oldand was prescribed antidepressants and antipsychotics 3 years ago. This year i suffer from an eating disorder so i decided to quit
When i stopped taking them abrutly my brain wasnt functioning well , i had and still have anxiety and severe self doubt and as a athlete it is very bad for my performance.
I mostly want to stop taking them because i want to get my emotions back. I am 3 weeks ssri free and 3 month antipsychotic free but is it possible that my anxiety is still present and what should i do?
This supplement is very helpful in anxiety situations: http://empoweredsustenance.com/phosphatidylserine-benefits/. I also suggest you begin a grain-free nutrition protocol, such as the GAPS diet, to support nutrient replenishment after disordered eating. http://empoweredsustenance.com/gaps-diet/ Lastly, Tapping and The Emotion code were very helpful for me, in overcoming an eating disorder and anxiety. http://empoweredsustenance.com/energy-medicine-techniques/ I wish you the best on your healing journey!
I wish you would provide a different title for the post. The author references three antidepressants from two different medication classes, an antiseizure medication that is sometimes used to treat bipolar disease and an antianxiety medication. One reading the title of the post might think she is talking about depression only.
I have no doubt that eating well will improve one’s situation. However as a person who has tried different styles of eating and taken antidepressants I can say that simply eating well won’t eliminate the need for an antidepressant for me. If it does for other people, great! I stopped eating gluten a couple of months ago due to stomach pain. I feel physically better which makes me feel mentally better, but it certainly doesn’t eliminate my need for taking an antidepressant.
I support people researching and making decisions about their diet and mental health. Just wanted to point out there is not a one sized fits all approach to depression. I say this as someone who has struggled with depression and also as a nurse who has seen many patients struggle with depression along with other life challenges.
Regarding trauma, I think that persons who have survived dysfunctional situation have often internalized a dysfunctional way of life that goes well beyond what they eat. Sure being physically healthy is important but it is only part of the journey. I am not totally sure that diet totally overrides the triggers that some experience, like a soldier who has PTSD who reacts to loud noises or someone approaching him unexpectedly from behind.
Lastly, the recommendation that a psychiatrist tell every patient to start an anti inflammatory diet immediately, not every one is in the state of mind to take such action. The psychiatrist has to meet people where they are at.
I appreciate your thoughtful comment and hearing your experience. I agree with what you state, “Regarding trauma, I think that persons who have survived dysfunctional situation have often internalized a dysfunctional way of life that goes well beyond what they eat.” I believe food should be addressed immediately in cases of anxiety and depression, as one foundation, but it’s not necessarily the cure-all and may not treat PTSD. There are other natural resources I recommend for trauma healing, such as hypnotherapy and EFT (“tapping”) that are clinically proven and highly effective. I also appreciate mind-re-training resources such as Byron Katie’s The Work for trauma recovery.
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All the best, I’m excited to watch your journey! Keep it works and share your amazing thoughts.
Great share and thanks again for the mention here,
Thanks and Regards!