At the time it was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I don’t talk about it much these days since so many worse things happened in the interim (ah, life). But back in 2000 – 2001, I had a nightmarish year consumed by anxiety. Granted, I had a lot going on. I’d just gotten married, I was in my last semester of grad school, teaching full time, interviewing for jobs all over the country, and getting ready to move. Oh and I was pregnant with a baby that never developed and waiting for a miscarriage that never came, necessitating surgery at 17 weeks during which they perforated my uterus giving me the most painful infection of my life. (No, this wasn’t our daughter Faith who was stillborn. That was still coming down the pike.) Good times! So you’ll understand that I might have had reason for some anxiety.
Unfortunately my panic attacks became immense, adding to my already monumental stress. During that year, I was in the ER more than a dozen times because my panic would get so severe I’d convulse, vomit and even faint. I thought I was dying. Every single time. (Ever dramatic, that’s me! If I’d lived in a different era I’m sure I would have had an exorcism or been burned at the stake.) I remember my new husband looking at me shaking uncontrollably and covered in vomit and diarrhea on a hospital gurney and muttering, “I should have got the extended warranty on you.” At least we could laugh.
And then a nice doctor would give me a shot of a horse tranquilizer and I’d be unconscious and un-knotted for a blessed few hours. The happiest I ever was (possibly in my whole life) was when I had a colonoscopy and whatever drug they used gave me retroactive amnesia. Turns out it’s impossible to worry when you can’t remember anything that’s going on. Turns out it’s also really annoying to everyone around you when you ask them every 5 minutes “What time is it?” and “Who took off my pants??” (Seriously how awesome a drug does it have to be for someone to say “Okay, now it’s time to stick a large camera up your butt” and have you reply “Wow, that’s the best idea ever!”) The night before giving my valedictory address in front of my whole college, I was puking my guts out in the ER. They gave me a Vicodin and sent me straight to graduation with the plastic IV port still embedded in the back of my hand. To this day I have zero recollection of anything I said because all I could think about was how stomach felt like I’d swallowed glass and knowing that the more afraid I became of the panic attacks, the more likely I was to bring one on. I lived in terror of the next attack.
It was that bad.
For anyone who has never experienced a panic attack, this sounds crazy. I know it does. It sounded nuts to me too. But they tested me for everything from Celiac’s disease to cancer to ulcers to ectopic pregnancy and the final verdict was that it was all psychosomatic. They called it IBS with GAD (irritable bowel syndrome with generalized anxiety disorder) – two of the most common mental health diagnoses and yet two of the least understood.
I had a slew of pills but I hated them (mostly because most of them were suppositories because I had such a hard time keeping food down and shoving things up your butt is not fun at all without the happy drugs). So when we moved to Seattle, I ditched my high-pressure job, took a job as an assistant professor at the local community college and started doing yoga. Yoga saved my life. I’ve written about it before but just learning how to breathe was huge in helping ameliorate the panic.
It helped but it didn’t cure me. This didn’t surprise me. Some of my earliest memories as a kid are of having panic attacks. I remember throwing up in the bathroom before going on stage to collect my Grand Champion ribbon at the science fair. And while it’s been much better in the intervening years – and my ability to talk myself down from them has grown incredibly – they’ve never completely gone away. Except, weirdly during pregnancy. Being preggo, aside from the miscarriage, seems to completely take away the panic attacks although they return full force in my tweaked version of post-partum depression. Obviously hormones are strongly connected to my anxiety but I think there are other factors as well. This is one reason why I wanted to start my mood journal – to see if there is a connection between my teeth chattering anxiety and my food.
But I’ve never given up hope that perhaps one day I could completely be cured of this. I was thinking about this last night as I had yet another panic attack (they’ve been much worse in the past year or so and while I’ve had many ideas as to why I’ve yet to nail down the cause), when I came across an article linking diet to anxiety symptoms. It was one of those anecdotal rah-rah “I’m cured!” type of stories but I couldn’t help but wonder if the link might be real. After all, food impacts so much of how our body works, why not our mood too? The time when my panic attacks started getting better was when I started yoga, yes, but also when I started consciously trying to eat healthier as well. The connection most people seemed to be making was a link between gluten (and sometimes sugar and caffeine) consumption and anxiety. The most impressive success stories came from people going to a paleo/primal diet.
The idea started to grow on me as I read through dozens of message boards and finding stories like this one:
“Anxiety was the absolute first symptom that went away when I went gluten-free. The panic attacks stopped like someone had flicked a switch inside me. I’ve still dealt with bouts of depression and I probably worry more than I need to, but it’s much, much better. I know it will take time before I’m “me” again but it’s a relief not to have those attacks and the constant buzz of anxiety running through me all the time.”
And this one:
“I went gluten-free for a month, and toward the end noticed a decrease in my depression for the first time in quite a while… it was so exciting! Now I’m glutening myself again so that I can be tested, and within a week, depression is back in full-force. Sometimes I’m in a good mood, then I eat a piece of bread, and an hour later I’m crying for no apparent reason. I’m looking forward to the tests being done so that I can fell better permanently!”
And this one:
” […] It was so bad by this time I was afraid to sleep at night because I was afraid I wouldn’t wake up. Well, I was told to try a gluten free diet for my symptoms and something strange happened. About a month in I was laying in bed one night and had this sense of calm around me. I actually remember laying there and slowly breathing in and out and smiling because I felt so calm. That’s when I knew I would never go back. I also know when I have been glutened by my anxiety coming back as well. I do sometimes think how different my life would have been if I grew up gluten free and wasn’t crippled by anxiety as a kid. But, I look at my beautiful family and know this was my destined path in life and I wouldn’t trade my life for anyone’s. Even if a piece of coffee cake or a cresent roll now and again would be nice.”
Oh you guys. Going primal or paleo has been a disaster for me in the past but I think that was partly because I was “experimenting” with it as a way to increase my fitness and lose weight (at the time). It didn’t work for me for those purposes at all. And going grain free has never appealed to me. But. Getting rid of my chronic anxiety and increasingly frequent panic attacks would be 100% worth it. I’d trade every loaf of French bread in the world to have the knot in my stomach go away for good. (Although I’d keep the brie!).
How does this fit in with intuitive eating? The crux of IE is learning to eat what your body NEEDS (i.e. what makes it feel its best) as opposed to what your body WANTS (i.e. what you crave or what your mind tells you it wants) and so if eliminating grains would really get rid of my anxiety then this would definitely fit into this definition. But of course it’s never that simple. Restricting any food usually sends me into a mental tailspin. The disordered-eating thoughts start circling like vultures which causes me to over-restrict and then binge. I’ve been overjoyed to leave diets and food restrictions behind. And yet yesterday I ate a ton of grains (which is unusual for me – I normally eat mostly fish/meat, fruit and veggies with 1 or 2 servings of grains) and last night I had the worst panic attack in 3 months. Connection? Or confirmation bias??
So what do I do?? Is this worth another dietary experiment – to see if it helps? Or should I go back to my doctor and see about getting on some more/different meds? Is it all just a placebo? I’m honestly not sure what’s caused this current relapse but I know I want it to stop!
Any of you struggle with anxiety – what have you found that has helped you? Have you noticed a connection between your mood and your diet??
I have been gluten free for almost 5 years and my mood issues have settled down dramatically. I initially did it for physical health reasons, so the mental health benefits were purely accidental… but a welcome relief. One of the early signs that I have been ‘contaminated’ (as I call it when I have gluten by accident) is random depression. Like plenty of people, I have disordered eating habits that date back to, umm, forever, but don’t think of being gluten free as being restrictive. If your body doesn’t want it, then you’re not denying yourself anything. It takes getting used to (both for your tastebuds and your wallet), but it’s worth it to feel better.
[I blogged about some of my gluten free ‘fun’]
I’ve struggled with anxiety for ~10 years AND I’ve been gluten-free for 3 years. For me, the two have nothing in common. You didn’t mention seeing a therapist – and it seems that you would want to try therapy before radically changing your diet. Meditation and chanting can help too. I come from a Christian background but I spent a few days at an ashram, and I picked up some techniques that help calm me down when anxiety happens. But I’d say seeing a therapist is the best thing you can do.
Thank you for writing about your journey. I was misdiagnosed with asthma as a child because when I would have a panic attack, I couldn’t breathe. I would be taken to the ER and given oxygen through a mask. I used a puffer for years. Until I started running and eating healthy – I stopped eating refined carbs, I felt a positive difference, but ithe panic attacks did not totally disappear. Because I started to get addicted to running and being watchful of what I ate, this now became a source of anxiety. Also, I would have anxiety about having anxiety. I was going the right direction but looking back now, I wish I had a bit more guidance on ideas of body image, self-esteem, and confidence. Someone mentioned therapy, this might have even useful for the reasons noted. Not many people know about this concept of the correlation between food & moods. Thanks again for bringing light to this.
I say it’s worth it, but it’s not just gluten, its’ dairy, and soy and maybe even corn that could mess with your hormones. For me it’s mainly gluten, dairy and soy. I ate banana nut bread yesterday and today I feel so anxious and restless. Feeling better is always the focus. And no it’s not easy and never will be because you always have your cravings to contend with and so much temptation everywhere you go.
In 2008 I cut bread dairy and soy completely out of my diet, I didn’t have headaches, depression, anxiety, bloating, irregular/heavy periods or joint pain – but alas over time I did relapse on my restrictive diet and have been struggling to regain my focus. These days I can really feel the difference when I eat one of my triggers because hormone swings take a turn really quick and my face breaks out like crazy too. I guess you just have to decide what you want and shoot for it.
In 2008 *what I meant was I stopped having those health issues after I cut those foods from my diet 😉