Putting My Mental Illness into Remission

I was medicated for bipolar disorder for 18 years. Ten years ago, I went off anti-psychotic medication. Eight years ago, I weaned off my remaining medication, an SSRI antidepressant.

Today, I am mentally healthier than I’ve ever been, particularly in the last five years, since I have been (mostly) gluten free and eat a lower carbohydrate diet. In fact, my husband would agree that since I changed my eating habits, there has been more of an increase in my mental stability. The times that I consume a bit of gluten here and there, and eat a little more carbs than usual, I typically start to sense some mental instability creep up. The connection between gluten, carbohydrate content, and psychiatric disorders has much clinical evidence behind it, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

I always feel the need to offer a few disclaimers before I share more of my story. Number one, I never encourage anyone to go off medication cold turkey or without the support of a medical professional. Unfortunately, many medical professionals don’t offer much caution in the tapering of medication, so there must be more of a support team in place, in my opinion. Going off medication cold turkey can lead to many unfavorable side effects and can often lead to a person feeling worse than they did BEFORE medication, so it is a very bad idea. When I weaned off my last med, I had a support team in place, and I had established many health practices that had me in the best physical shape possible. It wasn’t a quick decision; it took a lot of detailed planning and prayer.

Number two, every mental illness manifests differently in every individual who experiences symptoms. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1999, back when they still called it manic-depressive illness and didn’t distinguish between bipolar 1 or 2 as they do now. The symptoms I experienced at the time met the diagnostic criteria. Unlike most clinical diagnoses, diagnosing a mental illness means checking boxes on a list of symptoms, not looking at a blood test – and definitely not a brain scan. Because of that, and because I no longer experience the same symptoms, I consider myself to be in remission from this illness.

Here are the symptoms I experienced at the time that categorized me with bipolar disorder: periods of depression, lasting longer than a week where I felt fatigue, loss of interest in regular activities, sadness, apathy, worthlessness, and an inability to get out of bed at all. I also experienced symptoms of mania and hypomania, which meant that for short periods of time I felt increased energy, euphoria, an inability to sleep or slow down, racing thoughts, distractibility, and an increase in risky behavior and impulsivity.

The best way I can describe mania is through the Queen song, “Don’t Stop Me Now.” And the best way to describe depression is through the Gary Jules song, “Mad World.” Both of those songs are haunting to me in the way they so accurately depict living through extremes.

Here’s the other important thing to note – being on medication didn’t decrease all of my symptoms. In fact, some of my mood stabilizers and anti-psychotics caused me to hallucinate. Once, I walked into a video store and saw a pile of dead bodies on the left side of the store. That was terrifying. My antidepressant never caused a complete decrease in my depression or my anxiety. At an extremely high dose of a cocktail of medications, I experienced a zombie-like effect that was unpleasant. So to counter the zombie feelings, I drank alcohol – lots of it – to stimulate mania, which led to periods of blackouts and memory loss.

The only treatment options available to me were medication or, in the worst case scenario, hospitalization. I came close to hospitalization at one point in college, due to a horrific experience with psychosis on marijuana, but my psychiatrist told my parents that hospitalization and the abandonment I would experience as a result were likely to make me worse. My mom kept me home and monitored me day and night, as we once again adjusted my medication.

I share all that because the treatment options I received did nothing to treat the root cause of what drove my mental dysregulation. However, as I have been on my healing journey, and as I continue my education on integrative nutrition and functional medicine, I spend countless hours pouring over the research. I have discovered that most modern treatment options have not caught up to the science, and they are limiting and lack long-term resolution. As pyschiatrist and researcher Dr. Chris Palmer recently shared, talk therapy and medication will offer remission in symptoms only 30% of the time, and long term, only 10%. That means that 90% of people treated for mental illness will fail to find healing.

I feel like a broken record here, but WE NEED MORE TOOLS.

So – what helped me?

The topic of gluten for mental health is a well-researched and documented topic. There are literally dozens and dozens of studies on Pubmed linking gluten to psychiatric disorders, due to various factors. One factor could be the way that it increases intestinal permeability for 100% of people, regardless of a sensitivity or not. And we also know by the research that enhanced intestinal permeability can lead to mental distress downstream. Another factor could be the way that the gluteomorphin acts upon opiate receptors, and offers a drug-like effect. A further possibility to explore could be the hybridization of wheat and the pesticides used to grow it, which some researchers believe wreaks havoc on the gut microbiome, which negatively impacts mental health. Studies on gluten and pyschiatric disorders have been around since the 1960s. The most extensive research article I discovered is linked here. Side note – this is a great article to reference if your practitioner says something like “there isn’t very much research behind that” when you suggest trying a gluten free diet for your mental health. Just because they haven’t read it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

As with gluten, there has been much research done in a low carbohydrate, ketogenic style approach to reversing mood disorders. In fact, Dr. Chris Palmer’s new book Brain Energy focuses on his research and patient application of a keto diet to reverse disorders as extreme as schizophrenia. There has been more research on this for brain health than any other diet. Because many of the medications prescribed for bipolar disorder are anti-epileptic drugs, and the ketogenic diet was initially designed as a treatment for epilepsy, it makes sense that the effectiveness of the ketogenic diet for epilepsy would also be effective for bipolar. Personally, I feel INCREDIBLE when I am eating lower carb with higher fat and protein. I don’t follow a strict keto diet, because I do believe that for my reproductive hormones at this stage of life, some complex carbs are necessary for health. However, I keep my carbs around a 75 gram average per day, sometimes more or less. When I do that, I feel more mental clarity than ever. Please note this isn’t a diet for weight loss for me. This is truly what I have found makes my body function best. What works for me may not be what someone else needs. Due to two decades of psychiatric medication use, my metabolism is likely forever altered and I have reached a set point weight that doesn’t fluctuate, no matter what dietary strategy I employ. I choose to eat for my brain to function as best as it can, despite whatever long-term side effects medication may have played on my metabolism and mitochondrial function.

Dietary changes may have been a crucial piece of the puzzle for my healing, but much was established to restore balance to my body before that in order to make sustainable changes. These include circadian rhythm management, regular movement and whole food nutrition, supplements to support gut health, and emotional safety in my relationships and environment.

Some researchers suggest that bipolar disorder is simply a circadian rhythm disorder. There is evidence to suggest that creating an environment of complete darkness for sleep (through a sleep mask) can put a halt in a manic episode. Creating a regular sleep and wake routine that follows nature’s chronobiology is crucial for anyone’s mood, but certainly evidence shows it is necessary for bipolar disorder. This absolutely has been part of my healing. Sleep is sacred to me, and if my sleep is off for a few days in a row, I place priority in regaining my routine.

I began running and exercising consistently in 2006. At the time, I was trying to be in better shape for my toddler daughter. The side effect was increased mood stability. The evidence is well-established that regular exercise has been associated with antidepressant effects and mood stability. Some studies suggest exercise may even be more effective than medication. This could be due to the fact that it increases BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) – to impact neuronal growth – and supports a healthy gut microbiome. To be fair, I was extremely active in sports when my depression first hit, so it didn’t have an extreme effect on me back then. In my young adulthood, choosing to move my body 5-6 times a week was transformational. These days I regularly walk and practice yoga. Both are healing for me.

Around 2011, my husband and I started adding more whole foods into our diet. I learned how easy it is to roast veggies and season to my liking, and I loved the simplicity of throwing a few items together to make a complete meal without a recipe. That was the beginning of the freedom I experienced when I made the choice to add more whole food nutrients to my diet, and of course there are plenty of amazing studies on using whole food nutrients to support brain health, this one on antidepressant foods being my favorite.

In 2013, I started taking products to support my gut health. There are numerous studies, from the last six years especially, that detail the gut-brain connection, but this recent one was especially fascinating. The irony is that I started taking them to lose baby weight. I lost so much more. I lost my incessant need for sugar (which may or may not have been a serotonin issue, a candida issue, blood sugar, among other physiological reasons). I felt more balanced throughout the day, physically and emotionally. Yes, I did drop the baby weight eventually, but that was because I gradually changed my habits. I no longer drank a Dr. Pepper or Coke or Diet Coke once a day. That paved the way for me feeling more empowered to try other approaches to brain health, like a gluten free diet or lower carbohydrate intake. In case you’re wondering, the products I used are here. Side note – I find it fascinating that one of those products in the combo has been studied to increase the gut bacteria akkermansia by 250%, which helps to restore gut mucosa, barrier function, and supports immune and brain health as a result.

I have one more thing to add. We cannot heal our bodies until our bodies feel safe to heal. This includes safety from physiological triggers, like gluten or toxins or interrupted sleep patterns. But it very much also includes emotional safety. The brain is always looking to protect us. It is designed to scan and respond constantly to external stimuli. That then sends signals throughout the rest of the body via our cell membranes. How we view the world is a catalyst for how our body will decide to protect us.

Due to past trauma, I have struggled to find safety in my body for a very long time. For so long, I struggled to find balance in my nervous system, and I chose survival mode in order to power through and live my life as best as I could. But as the popular saying and book goes, the body keeps the score. I am still in the process of learning what safety looks like and how to create it. I am learning to check in with myself when I find that I am dissociating and checking out. I am learning to open up to my loved ones when I feel triggered. I’m learning to take care of my physical body and offer it rest when I am overscheduled. Reversing my symptoms of bipolar disorder was simple compared to digging through trauma that occurred early in my life and especially the trauma that occurred when my illness was at its height. I carry much shame and pain from things that happened when I was manic, medicated, drunk, or dissociated and playing possum. I don’t know that I’ll ever understand the extent of the damage caused by the things I store.

And this is where my faith comes into play. I do believe that a miraculous healing has occurred in my life. I believe I have beaten the odds. I never thought I would be where I am today, healthy and medication free. That’s not the prediction I was given by the experts. But I believe in a power far greater than anything on this earth. I believe in a God who sees, who comforts us when we’re broken, and who uses our pain and doesn’t waste one single hurt. I believe he brought me to the right tools at the right time. I believe he has given me hope and healing for a purpose. I believe that purpose is to inspire others who are struggling and isolated in their diagnosis. And I believe that for anyone out there who struggles even to read this, filled with pain and loneliness and skepticism, he will bring the right tools to you at the right time. Let him into your journey. He sees you already. He knows your hurt. He can be your safe place as you heal. Let him in.

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