*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. 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.
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 enviromental 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 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 flitered 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.
2011 — I discovered I needed a deeper gut healing and lots more tweaking of my food!! …even after I got rid of all obvious gut symptoms: Food as medicine
Updated note: In our society today whether people eat animal products or not is a hot issue. I would prefer not to eat meat but have found I must. I’ve also found that I’m intolerant of dairy and eggs, so that leaves only meat and fish. I have found others like me in my community with similar physical ailments who have found that animal products are essential. I’ve experimented heavily with purely vegetarian methods of nourishing myself without meat since I deeply value the lives of animals and have failed. This choice does not come without pain. I’m always happy for those who find they can thrive without animal products and I certainly don’t begrudge those who can. I hope someday to regain enough health that I might be able to once again carefully tweak most if not all of the meat out of my diet. I write explicitly about this issue because we are all different and people need to find what works for both their body and their spirit together. Sometimes the needs of the body and the needs of the spirit seem to conflict. Such is life. Never simple. I take comfort in the fact that all of nature eats itself and I’m blessed with a consciousness that can recognize that I am part of this web of life, complicated and lovely as it is.
**this post is in large part OUTDATED. I’ve learned so much more about diet since it was first written. Please visit: Nutrition and Gut Health, mental health and diet