A few days ago I came across a very inspiring post on Reddit by user “dinosauru”: a Bipolar sufferer who was able to find peace and health via the Paleo-ketogenic diet. I contacted DreaV (aka dinosauru), I asked her to tell us her story, and she was very kind to reply:
1. Could you describe to us when you noticed that you were developing mental problems? What was your diet at the time?
DreaV: Well, I first felt depressed when I was about 6. I was being alternately yelled at/ignored at home, was bored in school, and couldn’t make friends. I remember crying myself to sleep a lot and wishing I either wouldn’t wake up or that I’d somehow sustain a head injury that would make me stupid so that I could be happy. The first hypomanic episode I specifically remember was when I was ~11 years old. It was short, only about 12 hours, but that is normal for me. I have mainly just had severe depression with short bursts of hypomania and some mixed episodes. I don’t feel that I was truly in “mentally ill” territory until I was about 14, though.
My diet as a child was mainly cereal and 2% milk for breakfast, sandwich and chips/Lunchable and milk/Sunny-D for lunch, sometimes with an ice cream, and some kind of homecooked dinner. Generally spaghetti, tacos, meat with a vegetable and a roll, burgers, shepherd’s pie, or something like that. I only had fast food a couple times a year. I did snack at home after school on junk pretty often. Stuff like cookies, Sunny-D, Capri-Sun, etc. I was always hungry. But I feel like my diet wasn’t awful. We used butter and not margarine, went out to eat very rarely, not too much sugary stuff, etc. But I was chubby and got teased for it.
When I got into middle school, I quickly piled on the weight. I think it was at this point that I started being on my own for dinner most of the time, and I was eating more processed food. Mini pizzas, microwavable chicken pot pies, fish sticks, sandwiches, lots of milk and soda, and ramen. So, a lot of processed carbs mostly. During middle school and high school, I basically didn’t drink water at all, only soda and milk.
I first went to a psychologist when I was 14, and that’s when I received a bipolar-I diagnosis and started being medicated. First I was on antidepressants (Prozac and Wellbutrin), but they made my hands shake. I was then put on lithium as well. None of this seemed to really help at all, though at one point I was taking ~8 pills a day and was dealing with side effects. At 15, I was put in the mental hospital twice for 2 weeks at a time. The staff there were terrible and treated us all with impatience. They acted like we were all faking for attention and would punish us exasperatedly if we got worse. I was put on heavy tranquilizers the first time, sent home, and then when I stopped taking them at home, I immediately launched into the worst and most terrifying manic episode of my life. So I was put back in the hospital and was treated once again with annoyance and impatience. At home during this time, I was eating the carb-heavy processed food listed above.
(I was also dealing with escalating physical abuse at home at the time, and remember begging the hospital staff not to release me back to my mother. I asked for information on emancipation, but they didn’t make much effort to help me, and I was ultimately sent back home. Later that year my mother tried to choke me to death and CPS was called. Luckily, she never touched me again after that.)
At 16, I dropped out of school and, because of money issues at home, I was unable to get medication anymore. So I entered a drug trial for depakote and subsequently gained 40lbs in 2 months. At this time I was also eating mainly Taco Bell and pizza. Then I stopped taking medication for a year or so. In that time, my ability to leave the house degraded horribly and I started hiding in my room because I was terrified of being seen. I gained a lot of weight eating a diet of basically ramen, crackers, salsa, and cheese.
Then I moved, got a new doctor, and got put on valium and trileptal. I also started going back to school again and started doing better for a while. At this point I was eating more (though still not many) whole/organic foods. I lost a bunch of weight, and my depression/anxiety lessened to manageable levels. Then I progressively started eating like shit again and took a nosedive mentally. Unsurprisingly, my mood tanked and I gained weight again. At this point I was eating mainly high-carb processed foods again like pizza rolls, chicken pot pies, chicken nuggets and tater tots, easy mac, ice cream, kielbasa and mashed potatoes and corn, and stuff of that nature.
After this, we moved again, and things got even worse. I gained even more weight and basically shut down mentally. I couldn’t leave the house at all and adopted a nocturnal schedule so I didn’t have to ever see anyone or be seen. I would alternately starve for days and then gorge on huge amounts of high-carb processed food. My ankles were always swollen. I ended up at 300 lbs and was severely depressed. I thought about suicide constantly.
Eventually, I was kicked out of my house, and I began living alone. Because I was still having trouble leaving the house, I often just didn’t eat for days, and when I did, I tightly rationed. I stopped buying soda because it was too heavy to carry from the store when I went. I ate a lot of pizza for the first few months, but I would only eat 3 slices a day and that’s it so that I could stretch it. I lost about 40 lbs in a couple months but still felt just as shitty, probably because I was still eating high-carb even though I was eating low-calorie. When I got back down to around 260, I stopped losing weight. But eating low-calorie made me feel very weak. I had constant problems with my vision going black for 5-10 seconds when standing, feeling dizzy and having tunnel vision, being unable to get out of bed for the most part, I showered maybe once every 2 weeks, had no emotional resources to deal with anything, and was pretty much constantly terrified of anything unexpected happening. I had no ability to deal with even daily tasks, so something like an apartment inspection or running out of food was an emergency situation and took every last shred of emotional resolve I had just to get through. Then I’d have to recover for days afterward.
This stage went on for several years, and I had many close-call suicide scares in that time. At times, I was taking the trileptal, but it never seemed to help at all. So, most of the time, I was unmedicated. Eventually I applied for and was accepted to SSI because even my therapist was convinced I would likely never improve and become a functional member of society.
2. What is your opinion on the mental medical establishment? Did their approach of treatment worked for you at all?
DreaV: In my opinion, the mental health industry is a complete pile of shit. Meds are completely based on trial-and-error, and the fact remains that they are treating symptoms and not causes. Granted, if they had told me at the time to eat a healthy diet and I would get better, I would have laughed in their faces. I did not see the connection at that time between eating badly and doing worse mentally. I felt that any “healthy” low-fat diet they would have prescribed would be completely unsatisfying and take away the only pleasurable thing I had in my life (stuffing my face with junk food). And I know now that a low-fat diet would have actually made my depression worse, because even normal people feel depressed on low-fat diets!
Anyway, my time in the mental hospital, and my experiences with basically every therapist I have ever seen, and my more recent experiences with healing my body on my own, has led me to the sad conclusion that those people have no fucking clue what they are doing. The medication I was on the longest *did not help me*. It didn’t do anything. I took it when I was doing better and had the mental energy to keep up with it, and stopped taking it when I was doing worse to the point that I couldn’t even keep up with feeding and cleaning myself. So, sure, it appeared to others that when I was taking it I was doing better. But it was correlational, not causational.
I am sure that talk therapy can be extremely helpful for people who are having difficulty with a certain issue that would be benefited by thinking about things a certain way. Granted. But for actual mental illnesses like chemical depression and bipolar disorder, I really don’t believe therapy and medication are helpful at all, because they do not address the underlying problem. Contrary to popular belief, the underlying problem isn’t the messed-up brain chemistry! It’s what’s going on to make the brain chemistry messed up in the first place. And I believe that high-carb, high-grain diets are the cause, pure and simple.
3. When did you decide to try the ketogenic diet? What were the typical meals you followed?
DreaV: I decided to try a low-carb diet in January of 2012. I was my “normal” 260 lbs as always, but I had found some info on the mechanics of low-carb diets for weight loss somewhere online, and it just sounded like it made a lot of sense. Also, my dad had gained some weight over the holidays and was thinking about doing Atkins for a few months to slim back down. He had done Atkins several times before, but would then go off it, start eating sugary junk food again, and slowly regain everything he had lost. He was planning on doing another round of this, and I said, “Hey, I have been reading about low-carb diets too. I think I will go low-carb primal while you do your thing, and then we can be moral support for each other since we’re doing it together.”
I’ll be honest, I believed in the science behind what I was doing, but I didn’t really expect to lose anything. (And I certainly didn’t expect it to change my mental state.) I had lost weight before in my life, but it was never intentional, and I pretty much believed that I was “just big” and could never be thin. I was just meant to be big, so why fight it? But I figured I’d try this thing anyway because it sounded like it makes sense, my dad was doing it too, and if it didn’t work, I would have more proof to throw in people’s faces that I was just meant to be big. And it didn’t seem like it would be emotionally depriving, which was absolutely necessary for me to even consider it, because I was still hideously depressed.
I started off with a kind of free-form paleo-primal low-carb diet. I didn’t track anything or count calories or even exercise at all because I considered those things a tremendous burden that would only make me not want to do it. But I switched from my normal shitty junk food meals (living off chef boyardee, shortbread cookies, and ice cream, oh yeah) to a whole food diet. I ditched grains completely. I gave up dairy. No more processed foods. I started cooking all my meals and eating a lot of meat. My meals were mostly bacon & eggs for breakfast + some kind of meat and vegetable and fat dish for dinner. Usually something like shepherd’s pie meat, chicken soup, peanut curry with tuna, beef stew, chicken stir-fry, etc. I preferred (and still prefer) greasy, saucy, piping hot, heavily-spiced, deep and flavorful meals that felt solid in my belly. I’d eat until I was full, usually one bowl of food, and then stop. If I had a dessert, it was berries or dark chocolate. But mainly I was pretty strict. And I started losing weight immediately, which was extremely surprising to me.
4. At what point did you notice that you were getting better and you connected that to the new diet?
DreaV: When I started eating low-carb, I also started reading a ton about people healing their previous health problems, both physical and mental. I found this info mostly on the Mark’s Daily Apple forums and I talked to a lot of people there with the same sorts of problems that I had (albeit less severe than mine). Pretty much all of them said their problems improved with the diet, so I was very excited and became convinced that I could actually fix my situation if I did enough research and tried hard enough in the right way.
So, after about a month of getting the new eating habits down, and after the initial carb flu and subsequent water weight whoosh, I started taking a ton of supplements. Particularly iodine, adrenal cortex, and ashwagandha/rhodiola. I knew that I had hormonal issues; I had been diagnosed with PCOS 6 years prior, and I had an enlarged thyroid with a ton of hypothyroid symptoms (dry and thin skin, inability to regulate body temperature, tired and sluggish all the time, etc). Then I found out about something called adrenal fatigue. Basically, it means you are unable to deal with any kind of stress, are exhausted all the time, find it impossible to get going in the morning, stay up way too late because you’re just not tired late at night, and just feel generally at the end of your emotional rope all the time for no real reason. When your adrenals are messed up, any tiny stressor will cause a fight-or-flight response, which was exactly how I felt all of the time.
(I should note that adrenal fatigue is a controversial condition, but honestly I don’t find it that hard to believe that if my ovaries and thyroid were messed up that my other glands probably were too. All your hormones work together in a system, after all. And I was sure that my inability to deal with anything unexpected was not just due to some personal psychological failing in me, because “trying harder” just didn’t work.)
So, yeah, I started taking a bunch of targeted supplements to try and fix my glands and heal my body. Not cover up or treat symptoms, but help my body to heal itself so that it could eventually function correctly without any sort of ongoing intervention. And within about 2-3 months of starting low-carb, I was feeling noticeably better. It wasn’t some sort of miraculous transformation where suddenly I was out being a social butterfly, but within 2-3 months I was enjoying a pretty stable sleep schedule (with the help of melatonin), had the energy to do things around the house and go to the store pretty regularly, felt actually peaceful and content (instead of freaked out and terrified) most of the time, had a lot fewer panic attacks, and was a lot more able to deal with the unexpected. And things have only gotten better since then.
I want to note here that I tried eating wheat again about 5 months into being low-carb and grain-free (I had a slice of cake) and I ended up having a serious anaphylactic reaction to it. I had one of the worst headaches I’ve ever had, crushing chest pain, my throat got tight, and my tongue started swelling. I did not call 911 out of fear of the financial repercussions of doing so, but if the episode had lasted any longer than it did, I would have. Since then, I have only had small amounts of wheat, but every time I do, I get a headache within 15 minutes. I believe now that many (if not most) of my previous mental problems were due to my wheat intake, because I don’t think carbs could have caused my mental illness all on their own. I’ve also read some compelling things about “leaky brain” syndrome, which is suspected to be caused by gluten/gliadin and other things like MSG. And the fact remains that I ate wheat my whole life, felt like crap and was chubby and depressed even as a child eating pretty well by SAD standards, and at the times I was doing the worst, and weighed the most, I was also eating the most wheat (and processed white carbs in general). Personally, I fully intend to never eat the stuff again. And after reading a lot about it, I truly believe that no one should be eating it at all.
(Also, here’s an article from Psychology Today about possible links between bipolar/schizophrenia and wheat.)
It’s now been a little over a year since I started my new diet. My meals are still more or less the same, though I have reincorporated dairy back into my diet and added in splenda without any issues (aspartame seems to mess with me though). I also track consistently now and try to hit my macros every day, but this is mostly because I’m within 35lbs of goal now and my weight loss plateaued for a while.
My mental/emotional status is still steadily improving. I look forward to leaving the house now and don’t need any down-time to recover afterward. I am optimistic, have many future plans, and the future just seems bright. I am energetic and silly almost all of the time. I sleep on a normal schedule every night now without taking melatonin (I had to for the first 6-8 months or so). It only takes me a few minutes to fall asleep, and I can reliably wake up to an alarm at 7am every day now without much of a problem. Unexpected things are generally no problem at all.
I also have a serious partner now, whom I have moved in with. Previously, I was unable to co-habitate with anyone for more than a couple weeks at a time without wanting to strangle them. I would always feel completely overwhelmed and smothered and needed a lot of time to myself to recover emotionally from the stress of just interacting with another human. Now it doesn’t seem to be a problem, and in fact I feel that my partner has enhanced the quality of my life by being in it every day. I no longer want or need to be alone all the time.
5. How is your life now compared to your old life? How are you planning on keep the new-found health?
DreaV: Overall, I am not even the same person I was before. My family is completely blown away. Before, it would have been pretty accurate to describe me as a husk of a human being. I both looked and felt like an animated corpse. Every day that I lived was, in my mind, just another day wasted until I finally succeeded in killing myself. I had, on average, 2-3 suicide scares a year for close to 10 years. I didn’t think I’d live to see 35. Life was simply pain, misery, failure, disappointment, crippling guilt, self-loathing, and endless sadness. There were a few short-lived diversions where things seemed temporarily not-awful, but I never lost the overall feeling that it would get bad again soon enough, and in the end I would still end up killing myself.
Now I intend to live til I’m 90! Life seems like a beautiful gift now that I can do anything I like with. And I have so many plans! I’m still maybe not at 100% yet, because I’m still nervous about taking on too many responsibilities and getting freaked out and regressing. But I’m really pleased with my progress so far, and I plan to eat this way for the rest of my life. I’ve read that it can take years to fully heal adrenal burnout, so I am not worried and not pushing myself too hard. It’s ok, because I’m light years from where I was, and I know it’ll only get better!