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Food and Mental Illness

Want to know something that makes me absolutely crazy?  You know you do.  What makes me crazy when someone tells me that going gluten free cured their child of autism.  I want to shake them and tell them that they didn’t cure autism – they treated their child’s food allergy.  I share this because what I am about to say is not the same thing but may sound like that. 

This week has been one of those weeks where I’ve been getting weird messages from the universe – okay they may not be messages as much as things my brain have been attaching to. 

With Robin Williams death, the discussion about mental illness, depression and suicide has taken off.  It’s become a heated debate but, nonetheless, the discussion is happening right now.  I don’t want to divert or take away from that discussion because I believe it’s very important but I also believe it’s important to talk about the environmental factors that may contribute to mental illness.  Note – I say may.  I do believe that mental illness, true mental illness, is physiological.  I do believe that medications work for those who need them.  But I, also, believe that we turn to the drugs before learning what the root cause of the mental illness is.

My mother is a prime example of this.  She battled depression and mental illness for years – most of her life.  Medications didn’t really help.  Therapy didn’t help.  It wasn’t until her doctor tested her for food allergies that she discovered the root of her problem.  It’s a strange allergy because no one else made the connection.  She knows immediately when she has been exposed to her allergen because her belly feels hollow.  What comes next is a deep despair.  She feels suicidal even if there is no “real” cause to feel that way.

My husband had a similar food reaction.  We have no idea what he was exposed to nor did we know the extent of his reaction.  We had dinner and when we got home, I went to bed.  He stayed up most of the night with the suicide hotline.  Come morning, it was all gone.  He couldn’t even remember what the feelings were except that he was so sad.

Most people don’t want to talk about food in this manner.  They don’t want to think about food allergies – those people are weird.  However, the food we feed those who are vulnerable may be what is hurting them the most.

When I was pregnant with my son, my mom was institutionalized for a couple of weeks.  During that time, they feed my chronically ill mother food that was covered in processed cheese sauce.  Her doctor had put her on the vegetarian diet because of her diabetes so her meals consisted of overcooked macaroni noodles covered in Velveeta like sauce and over cooked canned vegetables.  When she was released from the hospital (she actually begged to go home because she was getting sicker), she was physically ill.  She was overmedicated and undernourished (not to mention seriously constipated).  She said it was a very interesting view of how we run institutions.

I have a friend who has a daughter with a severe mental illness.  She can’t get the doctors to understand that on a very specific diet, her daughter’s symptoms improve.  Her diet won’t cure her illness but certain foods definitely trigger worse symptoms. 

There was a time when most illnesses were treated with food.  I understand that medical practices were not always healthy choices but that just demonstrates my point.  Perhaps we need to learn how to truly balance our medical practices with nature.  Use a few less chemicals and try a few diet changes.  In fact, if you aren’t feeling so chipper – try a diet change.  Go outside and get some exercise, even just a walk.  If a week of walking and eating organic salads doesn’t help (you have to really commit to eating healthy though), then by all means go see a doctor and get some medication.  If you need help that is even more immediate – see your doctor but tell them you want to eliminate environmental causes while getting treatment.  Maybe you’ll be one of those who discover it’s all a food allergy.  Maybe not.  But at least, you tried.