I imagine this is the one you’ve been waiting for. The idea that just eating a certain way for a while will totally heal our guts and brains, making us stable and happy forever and ever is a tantalizing thought.
That dream of an end result is not where I’m at (yet?). It may never be where I end up. But in the meantime, the progress toward healing my gut & rebalancing gut flora with diet has made a big difference in the way my bipolar disorder plays out. Slowly, research is emerging that corroborates this connection.
I’ve waited over three years to write on this topic. I wanted to be sure the differences I felt could be chalked up to food rather than wishful thinking, the natural ebb and flow of symptoms, and my increasing skill in managing my moods with CBT and lifestyle techniques.
Now I’m sure.
Starting the DietWe started GAPS by doing the Intro phases slowly. Some people blast through them all in a month or less. We took more like 6 months. We held back on nightshades for about as long, because our son had joint issues and we wanted to be careful with that.
I’d already gone through gluten withdrawal, thankfully. But I was still extremely addicted to sugar. The main mood I remember from the first 6 weeks or so of GAPS was major crankiness along with constant cravings. My family and I decided to accept these things as “die-off” symptoms and I’m glad I did, because they eventually passed.
My moods had to get worse before they could get better. If you are starting GAPS for mental health reasons, do not stop your medications abruptly, and make sure you set up some kind of support system to help you get through this part of the process!
After a couple months, my mood started to seem more stable. I was generally in good spirits. I didn’t have trouble getting out of bed, I didn’t have trouble going to sleep and staying asleep. I wasn’t morose or overly excited. My defensiveness faded away. I didn’t feel anxious.
But the thing about mental health is that it waxes and wanes. I couldn’t know for sure what the reasons for my improved stability were. It seemed like a pretty good correlation, though. It helped that the kids were doing better, too. They both tended toward anxiety and moodiness. That was gone.
Things really started to add up when I did my gluten challenge. Wow, did it suck! While I had lots of physical symptoms, the reason it finally had to stop were the mental problems. We started referring to this as my “adolescent brain.” TinyHands seriously considered leaving me.
I was very reactive, very negative, and miserable in general. Finally the mental symptoms got even worse. I had problems with stuttering. My obsessive thoughts got out of control.
This process confirmed to me that gluten, at the very least, was really, really bad for me. Not only do I have the symptoms of neurological autoimmunity from gluten, but I also seem especially susceptible to the effects of gluteomorphins. (These partially digested molecules cross the blood brain barrier and act as opiates – more on this in another post.)
Now I knew from experience that I definitely had to stay completely away from gluten. I went back on the GAPS Intro and started to heal. My physical symptoms resolved very quickly. The mental ones took a bit longer. I became a decent person to spend time with again.
Discovering TriggersJust as certain foods can trigger physical reactions, the same can happen with mental reactions. While I was still healing, I realized that some cheeses and fermented dairy were ok for me while others were not.
Aged cheeses and fully fermented dairy are allowed on the GAPS diet. However, my gut was not yet completely healed, and I was particularly susceptible to casomorphins.
Since my gut was not healed up yet, the casomorphins were getting through. The proteins from cow milk are not all created equally, and my body did not react equally to them all. (More on this to come in another post.)
I’d crave dairy, I’d eat it, I’d feel wonderful, and then 12 hours later I’d have gruesome suicidal fantasies. This was like clockwork, even waking me up in the middle of the night. I’d go to bed feeling fine, and wake up with horrible, vivid images of self-hatred.
Being clean with your diet makes it very obvious when you screw up.
Now I’d seen how gluten and casein could both wreck havoc with my health. But they weren’t the only problems. I also noticed that if I ate too much fruit I might as well have had a candy bar. I’d get readdicted, and would have to go through a period of mild depression and anxiety as part of my withdrawal.
Just because a food was Full-GAPS-legal didn’t mean it was OK for me. I had to take GAPS more slowly than the rest of my family. We each had to listen to our own bodies.
Now that my gut is more healed, I can eat cheese without feeling suicidal. I can tolerate fruit. But I have to take it easy. If I indulge in these problem foods too heavily or frequently, I get symptoms again.
Unfortunately, I was still in need of healing when TinyHands started her new teaching job a year and a half ago. She was working 60 hours a week and commuting 3 hours a day. The kids also decided to try school for the first time ever. Our schedule completely changed, as did my household responsibilities and our family stressors. At the same time, I was trying to do more landscape work. I was having a hard time coping.
Anyone would have a hard time with such major adjustments, but I compounded the problem. In order to deal with packed lunches and quick breakfasts, we let some of the basics go. There was cheese in the house. We bought some things prepared that we used to make. We got lazy about eating our ferments and drinking our broth.
I knew I needed to stay away from the dairy. I knew I needed to keep on with intro-style eating. I wasn’t ready for Full GAPS yet. While my family could enjoy cheese and beans, those foods were definitely not yet ok for me.
I was feeling mildly depressed, as a rule. When I perked up, I’d perk up too much, and find myself fighting hypomania. I had to stay slightly depressed to be stable.
I was sure that if I could get back on track with Intro I’d have an easier time coping. But becoming more depressed and anxious, it was hard to find the motivation. I sought help in the form of therapy.
My therapist didn’t get it. She told me I needed to boost my endorphins. She told me I had an eating disorder and was trying to control food since other things were so out of control. I entertained the idea… maybe it was all in my head after all.
But truth is, I hadn’t started falling apart until my diet started falling apart. I had no trouble sticking to it and feeling good when it had been out of my hands. When TinyHands did the shopping, didn’t bring home foods that were bad for me, and put soup in front of me, I was fine. I felt good, I wasn’t depressed or anxious, and I didn’t worry about food.
But when I had to shop and walk past the cheese and the candy, when I had to cook foods for the rest of the family that didn’t agree with me, and when I had to make something special for myself… I messed up. The more I messed up, the worse I felt. The worse I felt, the more I messed up.
Relapse is a Part of Recovery
I finally realized how wrong my therapist’s perspective was when I had a particularly bad incident. TinyHands and I had stayed out running errands too long. We were hungry, had cause to celebrate, and didn’t want go home to cook. We decided to indulge ourselves and have a sushi date at a restaurant. We’d eaten sushi before without problems.
There are several risks for gluten contamination with sushi restaurants… soy sauce, prepared tobiko, prepared wasabi, tempura batter, barley in the tea. Of course rice isn’t GAPS legal, either, and sugar is used in the rice for sushi rolls. We were not careful.The next day I went to do a garden consultation for a client. I needed to go to the bathroom, but didn’t have time before I left and figured it would be ok. After the 1 hour consult, I had some trouble finding my keys. I got nervous because I wanted to get out of there quickly so I could find a restroom. I realized too late that I didn’t have time to ask my clients if I could use theirs. I ended up literally pooping all over myself in the car when I was trying to leave.
I had lost bowel control in the past. Most notably, it had happened several times when I was recovering from a particularly bad stomach bug about 8 years ago. I was never the same after that.
I told my therapist this story. She fixated on the fact that I’d felt nervous, and told me that was the reason for my gut troubles. Nevermind that the gut has a mind of its own.
I finally went and got my SIBO test, with positive results! Finally, a real diagnosis explaining what was wrong with my guts!
When I told my therapist this, she still maintained that the anxiety and depression were not related to what I ate. I fired her.
In the meantime, the stress of our lives increased. Our son returned to homeschooling, and we started trying to buy a house closer to TinyHands’s job. I was a total mess. Obsessive thoughts, anxiety, depression. My digestion was completely out of whack thanks to my difficulty staying away from foods I wasn’t ready for.
I went through the antibiotic treatment for SIBO, and as early as the second day, saw huge improvements both physically and mentally! The treatment gave me a fresh start, and while I didn’t return to strict intro, I was better able to cope with slight imperfections in my eating. Ever since then, I’ve been on a much more even keel.
I still struggle with my sugar addiction. I still find that I need to stick close to GAPS for my best mental health. The antibiotics helped get me back to a place where I could return to eating in the way that is best for me.
My mild depression is gone. My normal state is a bit happier, but not manic. My obsessive thoughts have stopped.
It is now as plain as day that doing what GAPS prescribes helps my mental health. The better shape my guts are in, the better my mind functions. This shouldn’t come as a surprise… The brain is a part of the body, after all!
Healing the gut protects your brain. GAPS has a good potential of healing your gut. I believe I have clear proof that eating according to GAPS improves my mental health dramatically. Straying from the plan causes it to deteriorate. It’s nice to know that the chemical imbalance in my brain is easily influenced by what I feed my body!