My nutritional habits and suggestions for healthy eating

group_all_colors300*note: my diet has evolved greatly since the writing of this post, as I’ve learned more about healing my iatrogenically damaged body. I no longer currently eat either grains or dairy. The journey to understand the dietary needs of my body continues to evolve. The body’s needs, too, change over time and as it heals.

I will make a few comments on diet and nutrition. I talk about diet all the time but most of the time say very little about what it means for me.

Diet is something that changes with my needs. It’s individual as well. This is just to start thinking. Your needs will be different than my needs.

I’ve resurrected this piece from over a year ago. I’ve made many changes to it since I’ve learned a lot more. There are a few things that can be said for everyone about general good eating habits. After a certain point individual needs have to be addressed. For someone like me who is extraordinarily sensitive to everything that goes in my body it’s good to be religious about good diet. I am for now relatively inflexible about what I eat or don’t eat, but I do hope that once I’ve reached and maintained stable recovery that I can be more low key about what I can eat.

What is key in a diet for most people who have taken psychotropic medications is the control of blood sugar. Stable blood sugar promotes stable mood. Most psychotropic drugs wreak havoc on blood sugar levels. At worst they cause diabetes, at best they simply cause disregulation problems. I have suffered from horrible hypoglycemia and find that in addition to eating a diet that promotes good blood sugar levels, I also need to eat every 2-4 hours. My snacks are exclusively protein which is the most sure-fire way to stabilize blood sugar. I eat primarily nuts and cheese for snacks and some vegetable at each snack. (Update: my blood sugar has stabilized dramatically since writing this with the help of my latest doctor. I take liquid Chromium under my tongue and an assortment of glyconutrients which seem to minimize my need for frequent eating. I still need be careful though—I don’t hesitate to eat when I need to and I don’t go over 4 hours in any case) For most people who are not on appropriate nutrients I can’t emphasize enough how much eating small frequent meals helped me. And that seriously meant a small snack every couple of hours for some time.

I will describe a good diet as follows. (this is a good diet for a lot of people….not just those suffering from mental health issues–though ultimately optimal diets are and individual thing.) The most key element again for the purposes of maintaining good blood sugar is how many carbohydrates are consumed and they should be few. Because carbohydrates greatly affect blood sugar a diet that excludes anything other than whole grains and occasional fruit is essential. This eliminates, sugar, white flour, white rice and white potatoes. These are all common carbohydrates that the body converts rapidly to sugar.

The alternative is to eat all whole grains. Make note: most “whole wheat” bread is not 100% whole wheat. Whole wheat may be the first ingredient but if you read the label closely you will see that there is a significant amount of refined white flour included. Breads that are described as “flourless” are best. Otherwise eating whole grains like brown rice, millet, spelt, bulgar wheat, barley etc. is essential to good blood sugar control. It should be noted that only small quantities should be eaten. Too much grain can be destabilizing as well. I have a lot of anecdotal evidence that suggest that for some people, any grain is too much carbohydrate, but I personally find that I do better with high quality whole grains in small amounts. Many people are sensitive to whole wheat and some people are sensitive to anything with gluten in it (they may have celiac disease which can get diagnosed as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder in some cases.) It’s worth experimenting with no wheat and also no gluten. I no longer eat wheat at all and had significant gut problems clear up. I tried being gluten free as well and it doesn’t seem as important. A good gut means you can absorb all the important nutrients you need to feel good.**

**since writing this piece I’ve discovered that the only way I could stop supplementing with probiotic pills was to stop eating ALL grains. Once stopping grains I no longer need to take probiotic pills to control a life-long problem with IBS. (I do seem to tolerate a bit of rice and may experiment down the line with other non-gluten containing grains. For now I’m using this book as a guide: Perfect Health Diet: Four Steps to Renewed Health, Youthful Vitality, and Long Life)  The author has a blog here. Also in stopping grains most recently my blood sugar normalized and my cholesterol improved. I’ve gone back and forth on this one and twice now my metabolic markers have improved after cutting out most if not all grains.

The majority of a meal as well as snacks should be high quality protein, preferably animal or fish and large quantities of vegetables. The animal protein is specific to mental health—my endometriosis would prefer a vegetarian diet and so I choose between sanity and pain here—this is an area I hope to change once I’m recovered. (since I first wrote this I discovered natural ways to control my endo pain even while eating meat!) I’d rather be a vegetarian for philosophical and environmental reasons as well as it helping the pain I deal with every month. I eat veggies at every meal and with every snack. I keep snap peas and snow peas on hand as an alternative to carrots which most people think of as the munchy veggie to keep around. In addition I eat a large variety of greens and all sort of other vegetables.

Fruit should be limited as the sugar is also too easily digested. If sugar cravings are a problem a piece of fruit is of course much preferable to other forms of sugars. Additional protein can be beans, although some people find them too carbohydrate rich. I find I like to mix them with meat or cheese in various ways. Nuts, cheese and eggs are also excellent sources of protein. I’ve switched to goats milk entirely as cow’s milk is difficult for me to digest.

To discover food allergies and sensitivities it’s good to consider doing a elimination diet. Food sensitivities and allergies are much more common than is realized and many of them can affect mental health.

Organic food is preferable. Hormones in meat can cause hormonal problems which destabilize. Pesticides too effect hormonal balance, which completely surprised me. Pesticides include xenoestrogens which can destabilize hormones and endocrine balance which in turn effects mental health.

I cannot afford organic products 100% of the time. I try to maximize what I can get that is organic, but when living on a limited income eating purely organic can be beyond many peoples means. (I do mostly all organic now. By learning local sources etc, it’s possible to minimize the food bill. We grow some of our food as much of the year as possible as well. We must continue to work on awareness of the importance of organics that they might be widely available to everyone regardless of resources.)

I will say that I am also aware of  people who recover to some degree serious mental health diagnosis without making any changes in diet and nutrition, but it is clear, again, based on what is now a lot of anecdotal evidence, that people do have an easier time and a more complete recovery when radical dietary and nutritional changes are made. I’m also finding the most profound changes come for people who include some sort of spirituality or meditative practice in their healing program. I think that for most people, if they don’t make significant changes they simply will not get better or be able to withdraw from psychiatric medications successfully. I always encourage people make these sorts of changes before trying drugs if they have that opportunity. Also it’s wise to begin a program of good diet and nutrition before starting the withdrawal process.

Other things to cut out of diet include alcohol and caffeine. For a long time I continued to have an occasional beer or glass of wine, but as I withdrew from drugs, and my body became seemingly more and more sensitive, I found that I would have immediate ill effects upon consumption of even small amounts of alcohol. Radical blood sugar shifts that would make me feel sick. So, what I thought would be difficult to cut out–I loved my social bottle of beer or glass of wine–became very easy when the results became so obvious.

Caffeine affects the adrenal glands and should not be consumed. Adrenal gland function is also very important for mood and mental health. It can also cause mood swings. For many years I struggled with the avoidance of caffeine. I suffer such fatigue and exhaustion, that for a very long time after making all my other changes I still would have occasional cups of black or green tea–I don’t recommend this. In retrospect it hurt me. It’s like borrowing energy from the future. Again, now that my diet is mostly pure, the caffeine in coffee immediately makes me unstable. One must first completely cut out caffeine to notice the huge difference it makes when then taking a small amount once in a while. I was a hard-core coffee addict. This was the most difficult change for me. Most people have the most difficulties with cutting out sugar, refined carbohydrates and other processed foods.

I have had a cup of green tea twice in the last several months for emergency purposes when I really needed to be functional. It worked, but I definitely paid the price afterward.

In addition: no refined foods, no msg, no artificial ingredients. I read labels religiously.

Also important, drink lots of pure filtered water…I try to keep things flushing through my body.

In essence what I eat is a “whole food diet.” Just think of it as eating non-processed, unchanged food as nature made it.

Oh, and just in case you think I don’t enjoy food, you’d be quite wrong. It’s entirely possible to eat delicious and wonderful food while also eating healthfully. I never feel deprived. I do sometimes feel sad that I don’t tolerate some stuff I’d like to have occasionally, like caffeine and alcohol, but if it makes me feel sick I’m not truly interested.

Stuff that does not make me feel sick but is not strictly healthy, I will very occasionally indulge in, simply because I think it’s healthy to be flexible too.

Supplements are a whole different and equally important part of diet. I am now on an extremely specialized regime made just for me. It’s made a massive difference in my health. Prior to finding my current doctor I was on a very solid somewhat generic regime that works for a good many people. It was not enough for me. I wrote a post on those supplements once before. It’s a good place to get ideas, but supplementation really is extremely individual. Some of the books on diet and nutrition I recommend are “Depression Free Naturally,” by Joan Larson and “The Mood Cure,”  by Julia Ross. Both these books an be used for just about any mental health issue. The dietary and supplement advice help all forms of mental health problems. Joan Larson has a great website with a Natural Pharmacy listing that I’ve posted before.

To see comments on the first time this was posted click here.

About Monica Cassani

Author/Editor Beyond Meds: Everything Matters

16 Responses

  1. j12

    Hi Gianna,

    What an excellent post! I admire your discipline, not only in researching and designing this diet, but in sticking to it! (I wish I could borrow some of your discipline in eating correctly.) It makes me so sad when I read about the psyche drugs causing diabetes and other metabolic disorders. I think you are exactly right in articulating the importance of nutritious and timely food intake. Thanks again for so clearly documenting how it works for you and why.

    I was an Adkins promoter for most of my life. It may have helped preserve some measure of sanity, but high protein diets use up calcium and perhaps contribute to overstimulating nerve fibers. I gave it up last summer (forever) when RLS got the better of me. (Had to give up coffee, too–and that WAS kind of hard.) I think it’s funny that Adkins is now supposed to be “good for you!” (HA HA HA–Adkins Corp. paid for the study.)

    I found that a ketogenic diet (like Adkins) does help some people with bipolar (and some people with epilepsy, too–just as they drugs are commonly used in different dosages for both conditions). It does have it’s benefit in keeping blood sugar and mood stable, and it eliminates any problems with gluten intolerance and casein gumming up neurotransmitters in the gut from dairy products. And there’s only so much junk food that’s low carb.

    Stanford University found it of interest too. The trouble with nutritional studies, as you know, is that “BIG FOOD” does not much want to compete with “BIG PHARMA” for customers–there’s not as much research money there! Here’s what I found:

    “Ketogenic diet

    A ketogenic diet similar to the diet used for pediatric epilepsy was thought to have mood stabilizing and antidepressant effects.[citation needed] Stanford University Medical School attempted a study using a ketogenic diet protocol on bipolar patients. However due to the lack of ability to attract subjects the trial was never started. Studies have shown it to have anti-depressant properties in rats.”

    Ha Ha again–IMHO no one wanted to find subjects because there would be no pill to sell if a diet was found to be the way to cure an unhealthy condition. I like the pills mother nature and God put together better, anyway. We’re reminded that ‘BIG PHARMA’ happened because the robber barons of the early 1900s set up medical schools that did not teach anything about nutrition–just chemistry that would later become the basis for the current medical model of pushing pills to cure disease conditions.

    Diets are so personal, it seems! What a luxury to live in a place and time where we have “choices” over our food. It’s taken me almost half of this lifetime of study to conclude that no one really knows what is the best diet for humanity, but it is worth listening to what they have to say! I must tell you that I like your clarity on what works for you!

    The only rule I’m sure of, is that of sticking with what has been around in nature since the dawn of man’s existence. As for me, Ms. About Face, I’m pretty convinced that we are supposed to eat fruit in the early part of the day to cleanse our gut, remove toxins and replenish nutrients–but on an empty stomach, so it doesn’t stay in the gut too long and putrefy. (‘Been researching leaky gut syndrome as it relates to mental health, too.) I’m convinced that whole and natural fruit sources of nutrients like ascorbic acid, which the body cannot produce on it’s own as other mammals can, are essential for mental and physical health. Harry Diamond, in the old Fit For Life books of the 80’s, had it close when he talked about the body having 3 cycles within a day: elimination (4am-12pm); taking in of food (12pm-8pm); assimilation of nutrients while we sleep (8pm-4am).

    I read a bit of history (for work), and this is one of my favorite stories about fruit and health. It just one more thing that convinced me that we’re supposed to eat fruit, often and in abundance:

    During the voyages of Christopher Columbus some sailors came down with scurvy and begged to be dropped off at one of the nearby islands. Scurvy is the first illness to be recognized as a nutritional deficiency disorder. It’s symptoms are massive hemorrhaging, exhaustion, diarrhea, and finally death, so Columbus dropped them off. (Smart guy, eh?) They preferred to die there, rather than on board where they would be tossed into the ocean as fish food. The island was abundant with fresh fruit. On the return trip, months later, the crew were all shocked and surprised to see healthy men with beards waiving to them from the shores since they had recovered completely. The island was named Curaco, meaning Cure. I like to add that the excessive Caribbean natural sunlight was probably equally curative!

    After decades of avoiding it, that’s exactly how I think about fruit and vegetables-God’s little pills of packaged sunshine. I think the cure for diabetes, cancer AND mental illness lies therein, but there is something to eating it on an empty stomach and not combining it with other food types that makes sense to me…

    Anyway, It’s definitely all about finding out what works for YOU, on an individual basis! I’m going for some MORE watermelon after writing all of that. (Hey, that stuff really works for me!) Thanks again for sharing all of this information on your diet with us…I find inspiring, and I know others do too.

    PS Sorry if I wrote too much–you know how it is when girls get to talking about diets!!!! (I’ll post shorter next time, I promise!)

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  2. Teryn

    Great post, Gianna. This resounds so well with me, esp. when you are talking about a diet that leads one towards stabilization. I’m reading a lot about nutrition and am tailor-making the one that is just right for my body type. I love the part about the Body Ecology Diet where we are building the ecology in our guts/immune systems. BUT…for me I’m going to have to modify the way they do food combinations. I need substantial protein and fat and some carbs at the end of the meal to keep my body as stable as possible and so that my blood sugar doesn’t drop. I’ve been eating based on my metabolic type for 6 months now, and have been way better with the blood sugar problems. For my body, if I do several small meals, it ends up speeding up my metabolism even more. The substantial meat and fat slow it down. The next book I’m going to read is phase one of the Fat Flush Plan…not b/c I’m overweight, but b/c it is geared for people with mcs. Piecing the puzzle of my healing program together one step at a time….

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  3. Great post! I’m afraid I’m nowhere near as good as you are at the whole foods thing. I buy organic when I can and when it’s not too prohibitively expensive, but I do still drink a little caffeine in the mornings, and I still eat some processed foods on occasion…although I think in general I’m moving towards more healthy habits. It’s been a long journey, and it’s not nearly over! I’ve seen a significant amount of improvement in how I feel as I’ve made these changes. My energy levels are just better when I eat healthy–higher in general, and more even. I don’t get that mid-afternoon blood-sugar crash that I used to. I agree with you about the small, frequent meals. I think that is the most helpful change I made. It has helped me lose weight and helped me be more mindful about what I’m snacking on.

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  4. j12

    Hey Gianna,

    Since you are a dog lover, too, I just wanted to share this with you. I’ve learned more about human nutrition from studying what animal doctors are saying than from the MD’s–no surprise there! Today was even better, in terms of what I learned about healing and nutrition.

    I just came back from taking my dog to a new vet because she has some very bad neurological stuff happening to her She stumbles around everywhere she goes as if her hind legs have their own set of instructions–maybe DM (dog form of MS), maybe spinal cord injury, but the x-ray was not enough to confirm this.

    I’ve been cooking for her everyday (fish, raw carrots, garlic, rice, lamb, potatoes, rice krispy treats, too, etc) and giving supplements and the condition worsened. He recommended a completely “NO-GRAIN” dogfood, and some better supplements, and exercise to the degree she tolerates it.
    Here’s the good part: He goes on to say that he has a history of neurological problems too, but that he feels he has cured himself with his diet. He said that when we don’t know what causes something, it should be treated with diet. (I’m thinkin’ we don’t know what causes bipolar, autism, MS, etc…but I just listened.) He said he had MS, but went totally off of grains and on to high quality protein and green vegetables. He says he used some supplements, too and that his own doctor was shocked when all of his bloodwork came back so well. He treats himself and researches online. He says he is fine now and will gradually star adding back things he wasn’t able to have during his healing process…Healing takes place in the gut, first. In conclusion, since I promised the keep this one short, I’ll just say that it literally “TAKES GUTS TO HEAL!”

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  5. j12

    SWEEEEEEEEEEEEEET! 20 years???????? ‘Don’t know how you could stand it!

    I’m so glad for you, now–and the best is yet to come!!!!

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  6. Different people have different endocrine systems over- or under-stimulated. Much of that is shown by the way your body is formed and where you put on fat.

    No book is perfect, but the best one I’ve found is an old 1985 book (updated a few times, but no real new information) called Dr. Abravanel’s Body Type Diet. Should be able to find a used paperback copy real cheap on the Internet.

    He has different diets based on whether your thyroid, adrenals, pituitary, or in women (don’t know why not men) gonads are overstimulated, and the diets are geared towards both giving the overstimulated gland a rest and bring the others up to par.

    Some people can drink coffee. It’s not a matter of what you LIKE to do, but what you SHOULD do for your body.

    Hugs,
    Moss

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  7. Vi

    Need to play devil’s (coffee’s) advocate here. Coffee is good for some people. Parkinson’s patients, people w/ circulatory problems, asthma, heart disease, even diabetics.

    Over the years I have misplaced my albuterol inhaler at least twice that I recall and a cup of black coffee spared me a ride in an ambulance.

    Sure it does a number on the CNS, but some people need a little stimulation medicinally. Granted, I may be biased as I love my coffee, but some things are helpful to some people.

    Same goes for the Atkins diet, it is helpful to some people. I have had several epileptic students over the years that were on strict Atkins or modified versions of Atkins. Atkins (in it’s original form) is a whole foods diet, I can’t argue w/ that. It’s a bit too saturated fat heavy for my tastes but even that has it’s health benefits. Just ask Gary Taubes.

    Over generalizations are what caused many of us to be placed on unnecessary psych meds on the first place. I know that’s my story anyway.

    Thanks Gianna, great post.

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  8. Hey gianna,

    Finally read this. It’s an incredible post. What you outline requires immense discipline. Culturally, I live off of carbs so I’d actually have carb withdrawal more than I would caffeine. That and I don’t even know where to begin to get rid of refined flour or white sugar. Guess I’m doomed on that end.

    But this is an awesome resource for people to use and draw on.

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  9. This is a great post Gianna. I have been preaching “try food first” for years. It drives me nuts to see little kids on mind altering drugs while the school makes money on selling them junk food with artificial food colouring.

    I firmly believe that stabilizing blood sugar levels, checking
    allergies and healing leaky gut needs to be tried for anyone with a psychiatric diagnosis, before any drugs.

    You go girl. Great work.

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