For the past four months I’ve been suffering from anxiety and depression. I know this because I’ve been here before. I’m adept at recognizing the signs: Trouble getting out of bed, frequent and volatile mood swings, and an overwhelming sense of dread. I’ve been worrying about the future and my purpose in life, and every challenge that comes my way has been met with resistance and turmoil. Sometimes I’m fine, but most of the time, I struggle to exist.
It’s not all bad news though. Things are slightly different this time. I have the advantage of being older, wiser, and a bit more experienced when it comes to mental health issues. This time around I’m exploring alternative ways to heal. I’m treating my anxiety and depression through diet, meditation, and exercise alone. I’m calling it the Eat Pray Sweat Challenge, and the plan is to document my progress on this blog. I hope that by sharing my story with family and friends, they’ll come to understand what I’m doing, and support me fully during this process.
Conventional Drug and Therapy Treatment
My first experience with anxiety and depression occurred between the ages of 24 and 25. My diet was poor, I was smoking marijuana and cigarettes daily, consuming loads of caffeine, not exercising, and basically just not looking after myself. I treated my illness then with anti-depressants, first Cipralex (SSRIs) then Pristiq (SNRIs). I also went to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The combination of the two was enough to put me on the right track, but like anything else, medication was always just a band-aid and I never felt comfortable with one-to-one therapy – focusing solely on my problems just made me feel worse.
In 2013 I read a book on functional medicine called the UltraMind Solution by Dr. Mark Hyman. In it he explained how neurological diseases and illnesses like Alzheimer’s, dementia, anxiety, depression, autism, and ADHD are caused by imbalances in the body as a result of environmental and lifestyle factors. I then went on to read Clean Gut by Dr. Alejandro Junger, another functional medicine practitioner, and it was clear to me that many of the afflictions I was experiencing in life – not just anxiety and depression, but the skin condition rosacea, and digestive issues – could be cured through diet alone. What’s more, antidepressants were wreaking havoc on the natural ecosystem of my body, perpetuating my mood problems. I soon realised that if anxiety or depression ever returned, I knew I would have to do things differently.
Nutritional Therapy Treatment
When I first started feeling down, approximately four months ago, I went on a six-week detox to get myself on the path to recovery. This included cutting out alcohol, dairy, wheat, gluten, caffeine and refined sugar. I also began exercising regularly, and meditating daily to calm the mind. I did feel somewhat better, but by no means did I feel like I had recovered. What’s more, my rosacea didn’t seem to improve like it had during my previous detox. (I had completed one in May 2014 with great results; my skin had cleared, I dropped 8lbs of bloat, and generally felt pretty upbeat).
I felt like I couldn’t kick whatever was plaguing me this time. Maybe I had a hormone imbalance or vitamin deficiency? I knew I needed help, and I knew that a regular GP would just put me on antidepressants again, so I started searching for a practitioner in the Institute for Functional Medicine directory.
I met a nutritional therapist named Elise Scholsberg who specialises in treating IBS, hormonal imbalances, blood sugar regulation, autoimmune conditions, stress and anxiety. In preparation for my appointment, I had to complete loads of paperwork including a metabolic screening questionnaire, a nutritional programme questionnaire, a symptom analysis screening, a lifestyle and diet analysis screening, and a one-week food journal.
At first analysis, she said my life-long suffering from irritability and mood swings could be the result of a glucose imbalance. My rosacea could be an autoimmune response to the heightened levels of cortisol (stress hormone) in my body, a result of spiking insulin levels. My frequent use of antibiotics (three different prescriptions in the last three years) could be clearing out the good bacteria in my gut, where 75-95% of serotonin is produced (the same serotonin that makes us happy).
She wrote me a prescription: No more sugar, refined or natural. A drop of sugar can produce thousands of spores of fungus, wreaking havoc on my good gut bacteria. No more alcohol (because it’s basically just sugar). No more dairy. No more gluten. These are highly allergenic foods, so until we know what’s wrong with me, I’m to stay away.
You’re probably thinking, “What the f*&@ can you eat then?” This is the standard response I get when I tell people about my diet.
Though I was familiar with cutting out sugar, alcohol, and gluten in the past, I only did so for a short period of time. It was a temporary measure to regain my health, never a permanent lifestyle change. It was a strategy of subtraction – take away the things that made me feel sick, sad, depressed. What I needed to feel better was a strategy of addition – add copious amounts of healthy, nutrient dense food to my diet. It wasn’t until I met Elise that I realised just how little nutritious food I was eating.
To kick start my healing, Elise gave me a set of principles to follow. For the next six weeks I must:
- Eat protein at every meal. Lean, grass fed animal protein and fatty fish.
- Eat a rainbow of vegetables at every meal.
- Eat every 2-3 hours. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and a snack in between each meal. This is crucial to regulating blood sugar levels.
After a week, she said, I should be in much better shape. After six weeks, we’ll be able to test for food allergies, blood sugar levels, hormones, or anything else that may be causing problems.
Following my appointment she gave me a list of vegetables I should eat and their respective quantities. These are categorised into three groups, totalling nine cups of vegetables a day:
- 3 cups leafy greens
- 3 cups colours (a variety from the 4 respective colour groups)
- 3 cups sulfur rich vegetables
Why nine cups? According to Dr. Terry Wahls, this is the exact variety and quantity needed in order to adequately nourish our cells and ensure proper cellular function.
An American physician with secondary progressive MS, Dr. Terry Wahls was facing the prospect of a bedridden life when she lost the ability to move because of her illness. Despite receiving the most advanced drug treatment available for MS, her condition was rapidly deteriorating. She began exploring alternative ways to delay the onset of her symptoms, and in doing so discovered that all autoimmune diseases – including behaviour problems, mood disorders, even schizophrenia – were fundamentally the result of dysfunction at the cellular level. Basically, the cells in our bodies and brains are not being nourished properly, and because of this, they’re breaking down and causing the mind and body to breakdown too.
I’m oversimplifying the process, but what really got me was how after three months on the diet, the once wheel-chair bound Dr. Wahls was able to walk again, and after six months she was able to cycle for 18 miles! Don’t believe me? Watch her TEDx talk:
Dr. Terry Wahls – TEDx talk – Minding your mitochondria.
If Dr. Terry Wahls could treat a debilitating disease like MS with diet, then surely I could treat my anxiety and depression, too.
Diet will play a crucial role in my recovery plan, but it’s not the only thing I’m banking on. For years I’ve listened to people speak about the importance of meditation to promote relaxation and generate a sense of well-being. For someone like me who is naturally anxious and easily excitable, if quieting the mind for even 10 minutes a day could help me to cope with anxiety, then I was committed to giving it a shot.
Though meditation sounds like the easiest of the three elements to integrate, it has by far been the most difficult to stick to. I’ve only just nailed the habit after months of trying. I could see myself getting worked up if I missed a session or two. I now meditate every morning when I wake up, even before I leave my room. It’s become the highest priority of my day. And it works this way.
Exercise has always been an important part of my life. I use it as a sedative – to expend energy and to calm the f*&% down. That’s not to say I’ve always been good at sticking to a regular routine. For years I’ve neglected my fitness. But I always manage to find my way back, and each time I do, I wonder why it took me so long to do so.
When I set out to make myself feel better, I knew that working out was just as important to my mental health as my diet. So I’ve committed to keeping a regular fitness schedule as part of my recovery plan. I workout four days a week, following Jersey Girl Talk’s Weightlifting and Strength Training Workout for Women. Like anything worthwhile, it been tough to get started, but now I look forward to going to the gym to build up my strength.
Tracking My Progress
Before I even started nutritional therapy, I was committed to getting this situation under control. To do that, I needed to fully understand it. I needed to objectively quantify my feelings to really put things into perspective. You see, more often than not when you’re depressed, you can’t see the forest for the trees. Reality is distorted. So it’s important that you keep track of how you’re feeling on a daily basis. If only to demonstrate that things are not as bad as they seem.
To do this, I created a really simple mood tracker using a spreadsheet and a mood scale of 1-10:
- Hating life
- Been better
- Pretty darn good
- Fucking awesome!
At the end of each day I write down my mood score and a corresponding note summarising what happened that day. I’ve since added additional rows to track when I exercise, when I meditate, and when my monthly cycle comes into effect (to track hormone fluctuations). The purpose of this is to draw a correlation between these activities and the impact on my mood over time.
If you’re feeling anxious and/or depressed, I recommend that you start tracking your mood right away. That way, if you make any changes to your lifestyle or diet, you can start to see how these changes affect you. This exercise is incredibly empowering, especially if you’re feeling powerless over your feelings and emotions.
It’s been three weeks since I’ve started my new lifestyle, and I’m happy to say I feel so much better than what I did before. I’ve registered a level 10 (i.e. fucking awesome!) on the mood score a total of three times, which is a massive accomplishment for me. I haven’t felt “fucking awesome!” in months. What’s more, I’ve seen my mood average increase from 6.4 to 7.2, an increase of 13% in three weeks.
Though statistically this doesn’t seem that significant, I believe this 13% will compound. If this slow and steady increase is a reflection of only three weeks of hard work, imagine what percentage increase I can achieve after three, six, or nine months? And lets keep a little perspective: Feeling 13% better when you’re depressed is a massive improvement. It’s the difference between being able to get out of bed and, well…not.
Though prescribed for an initial six weeks, I realise this lifestyle change is a long term game. I’m just beginning to understand what my food sensitive are. Because I’ve been adhering to a strict regime, in the span of three weeks I’ve been able see the effects of the tinniest bit of sugar on my system (i.e. a massive rosacea outbreak). I’ve also seen myself rage from an increased consumption of carbs and long gaps between eating – demonstrating the power blood sugar has on my mood.
Has it been easy? No.
At first I felt an overwhelming sense of isolation. Imagine being told that you may never be able to drink alcohol or eat sugar again because of potential blood sugar issues? There goes my social life. I’ll never be able to eat at a restaurant or go to a friend’s house for dinner without being a massive inconvenience. And that did not improve my mood score.
It’s one thing to impose a short-term detox on oneself, but it’s quite another to get a reality check from a health professional. What’s even more frightening is the realisation that you and only you can make this commitment. That you alone are responsible for your health and well-being. I could choose not to follow Elise’s advice. I could choose to eat and drink whatever I like, but I would only be hurting myself and the commitment I made towards getting better. And that commitment is too important for me to break.
The weeks have worn on, and like anything else, I’ve gotten used to this lifestyle. I don’t know if it’s for life, but I’m opened to that possibility if it means being happy, healthy and feeling fucking awesome! on a regular basis.
Next article: How I Beat Anxiety & Depression.