Thank you, Jill, for today’s guest post and for your willingness to to share all you’ve been through in your battle with anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Your story will be a source of hope and healing for many!
By the way, if you have a teen or preteen struggling in these areas, see the post on How to Help Teens with Depression and/or Anxiety.
First, a personal note:
A close friend of mine has fought anxiety issues since she was a teenager and when she tries to go off meds, it rears its ugly head again and leads to panic attacks, chronic pain, and insomnia. I’m hoping some of these suggestions can help her. At this point she’s back on the meds, because while she hates the side effects, at least she has a life again. I’d love for her to try the GAPS Diet for a real chance at total healing (this diet heals the gut, i.e. the digestive and immune system; gut health and brain health are directly connected!), but she’s just not at a place in her life right now where she could pull something like that off. (The diet is a lot of work, even for someone who is already familiar with things like making bone broths and fermented foods. It’s definitely doable, but not always easy.) How I wish that doctors years ago, or even doctors now, knew about this so she wouldn’t have had to suffer for so long… We’ve asked her to move in with us for a while so I could cook all her meals and give her lots of support, but she has a busy family that need her and she understandably doesn’t want to just step out of her life like that. (This is a different friend than the one who graciously shared her story of weaning from Paxil. Be sure to see that post for loads of information on going off meds – don’t miss the comment section!)
I’m praying like crazy that the information, links, and resources in this post will bring my friend, and any of you out there who are suffering, to hope and healing. Feel free to email me if I can help you in any way. Kelly@KellytheKitchenKop.com.
And have you seen my post about my “All Natural Chill Pill“?
Here’s Jill’s story, and what helped her to get better:
(I’ve shared a few of my own comments in italics.)
Sometimes life drops a bomb in your lap that leaves you reeling. Other times the stresses of life can gradually wear on a person until something within them breaks and they are thrown into depression, an anxiety disorder, or chronic fatigue. We are only human after all. For me it was a bomb in the form of a sexual assault about 12 years ago, which left me struggling for years with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and all of the depression, anxiety, and eventually fatigue that goes with it. I’m happy to say that I have been free from PTSD symptoms as well as depression and anxiety for several years now.
One of the important aids along my journey was that of implementing dietary and lifestyle approaches to building up my body and mind. It’s surprising how dramatically a major emotional struggle can effect our physical body and health. And when our bodies are not functioning well, our mental health is further affected and a self-perpetuating cycle can develop.
There were no magic bullets for me, but time, faith, and applying the approaches I am sharing below helped over time to move me out of that cycle and on to wellness.
Much of what I am sharing was discovered by experience and later validated by further research in books and on some good natural health internet sites, as well as guidance from a healthcare provider experienced in natural hormone balance. I hope that my story will provide some tools as well as hope for others who feel stuck in a cycle of depression, anxiety, and/or exhaustion.
(By the way, although I did not use pharmaceuticals–I tried Paxil very briefly, but my side effects were enough to make me drop the approach completely–I realize that for many people, prescription anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication may be very helpful and even necessary. None of what I am sharing is intended to replace professional guidance.)
Before jumping in, I think it’s important to start from a perspective that recognizes that God did an amazing job creating us.
When you are in a depressed, anxious, or severely exhausted state it can feel like that’s just how life will be from that point on, but our bodies and minds really were designed to heal–what we need to do is cooperate with the process by providing our body with support that works for that process and not against it. Of course there are differences between people and what works well for one person may not work for another, but here is a list of basic recommendations for helping the healing process along, and these apply fairly universally:
1. Cut way back on or completely eliminate sugar and refined carbs (white bread, white pasta, white rice, etc…). The reason for this is that big fluctuations in blood sugar create stress in our bodies. Both high and low blood sugar cause your body to release a surge of adrenaline and cortisol, which are stress (fight-or-flight) hormones. (I would add that lowering your intake of all starches would be helpful, even whole grains can spike blood sugar.) Why add stress to stress? For people battling anxiety these surges can trigger panic attacks. Prolonged stress also creates imbalances that can cause hypoglycemia. This is an example of emotional stress leading to physical problems that in turn add more emotional stress.
2. Don’t go too long between or skip meals (if you feel hungry, you already have low blood sugar, so healthy between-meal snacks are also good–or several small meals per day instead of 3 big ones), and be sure to include plenty of quality protein and fat with every meal in order to help keep that blood sugar stable. Stable blood sugar goes a long way in helping to support stable stress hormones. Definitely not a good time to eat a low fat, low protein (vegetarian), or high carb diet. Butter (not margarine or hydrogenated shortening), olive oil, avocados, coconut oil, walnuts, eggs with the yolks, full-fat raw dairy, grass-fed meats, cod liver oil...all good stuff. (I would add to this list even more pastured animal fats like lard or beef tallow, too.) Though continually vilified, cholesterol is a building block of hormones, which tend to get out of balance under prolonged stress, so there’s another good reason to remain friends with animal foods. (Yes!)
3. Think nutrient dense. Often, people under emotional stress have a difficult time eating or experience changes in metabolism. I remember having a hard time eating (from nausea, upset stomach, etc…) or after eating it didn’t seem like the calories or nutrition were being absorbed. You definitely don’t want to waste any eating effort on worthless foods, so bypass processed junk and go for real, whole foods.
4. Along those same lines, many people battling depression or anxiety have the added complication of stomach or intestinal problems as a result of the stress. Our brains and gastrointestinal tracts are connected far beyond what most people would imagine and one profoundly affects the other (which is why the GAPS Diet is so effective in battling emotional problems!) Be extra kind to your digestive system and consider adding probiotics (especially if you have frequent diarrhea) or digestive enzymes. Food preparation can make a big difference as well. I wish I knew at the time how soothing bone broths could be to your stomach and how easily the nutrients from it are absorbed. If you are a regular reader of Kelly’s blog you already know about the benefits of traditional food preparation and there’s no better time to apply that knowledge than when your body really needs it!
5. Many people experiencing stress and fatigue find that they crave salt. As it turns out, we often need more salt during such times–your body will tell you if you need it. Raw, unprocessed salt (Celtic, Himalayan, Real Salt, etc…) is easier for your body to use properly than regular table salt, plus it contains a full array of trace minerals, which are also needed while under stress.
6. Try to get plenty of sleep. Don’t let yourself run on empty in any way, whether it be an empty tank from not eating, or an empty tank from being sleep deprived. Sleep deprivation taxes your adrenals big time (you know the phrase “running on adrenaline”), which contributes to the problem. Take naps if you need to and sleep in on weekends if you get the chance. Our bodies and minds do a ton of repair work while we’re sleeping. Maintaining a consistent, relaxing bedtime routine, sleeping in complete darkness, avoiding overstimulating evening activities (high intensity exercise, stressful conversation/conflict, suspenseful movies, etc…), and avoiding caffeine and sugar (especially in the evenings) all help promote quality sleep. (Another idea: even though she’s not Catholic, I just sent my friend a Rosary because she thought it might help her to relax and sleep: the repetition, the beads to hold in her hands… and who better to fall asleep with than Jesus and His Mom – it’s not just for Catholics! Also, see this post for more suggestions on how to get more sleep – don’t miss the comments where all the good stuff is.)
7. Often these stress-related challenges leave people with insomnia, which was a big problem for me. Melatonin, kava or other sleep-promoting teas, herbs, or supplements can be helpful (my favorite is Relax-All by MRM–it doesn’t drug you or leave you groggy in the morning but helps immensely in promoting quality sleep). I received some great advice during two separate seasons in my life when I really struggled with insomnia. The first is if you wake in the middle of the night and you know there is just no way you are going to sleep, rather than stress over it (which makes it worse), get up, brew some herbal tea, and have some quiet time to yourself to pray, read something relaxing or your Bible (no suspense thrillers!), or write in a journal. If you are going to be awake at night, you might as well make it a quality time. The other piece of advice I received is in the morning after not sleeping well, focus on the sleep that you DID get rather than on what you did not get and be thankful for it–somehow it seems to double the effects of sleep so that one hour becomes like two.
8. Eating a small snack with protein before bed will help prevent blood sugar drops in the middle of the night, which can also prevent a middle of the night panic attack and promote undisturbed sleep (that used to be a common time for me to get panic attacks–even now if I go to bed on an empty stomach I can sometimes feel slight shaking and increased heart rate, which keeps me up). A handful of almonds or a glass of raw, whole milk are good, quick options and can even head off a low blood sugar-induced panic attack if you catch it at the beginning.
9. Cut back on or gradually eliminate caffeine. It revs you up unnaturally and contributes to exhaustion if you are already at that place. It stimulates stress hormones too, which you don’t need any extra of. Tulsi (holy basil) tea is supportive of adrenal health and is a good alternative. If you want something that tastes like coffee see if you can find Teecchino–it comes in grounds that are just like coffee to brew and has a coffee taste and texture, but is completely herbal and decaffeinated (and yummy). (You can find Teecchino here. I also really like Dandy Blend.)
10. Take about 20 minutes in the afternoons to chill. Put your feet up, drink some relaxing herbal tea or eat a snack, and just relax. It will switch your gears a bit and recharge your battery, especially if it’s been a busy day. This is really important in cases of adrenal exhaustion–pushing yourself without breaks will further damage your body, which negatively effects your emotional and mental health even more.
11. Exercise is great physically and mentally and has been proven to be quite effective in healing depression, but don’t overdo it. If you feel exhausted you will start over-taxing your system instead of rebuilding it, so listen to your body. Getting outside in and of itself can be therapeutic, so even a light walk can be great.
12. Sunshine is very therapeutic in dealing with depression and stress related issues. Not only does it supply much-needed vitamin D (as long as you are not slathered with sunscreen), but the bright light from the sun positively influences brain chemistry and hormone balance. Think about all the people who experience winter time depression–we need the sun! I remember craving sunshine while I was really struggling. It seemed to mysteriously ease some of my emotional pain and was very soothing, even though I had not yet read any scientific explanation for why that was. Just don’t go overboard and burn yourself!
13. Don’t forget to laugh and have fun! Studies prove that laughter is incredibly healing for our minds and bodies. But I don’t think we need studies to tell us that–we have all experienced the refreshment that comes from a fun day out (at the beach, mountains, or whatever) or after a good laugh. And on the other side of that coin, if you feel like crying, by all means cry. Tears were made for a reason and a good cry can be at least as stress relieving as a good laugh!
14. A variety of herbs are helpful for bringing stress hormones into balance–like tulsi (holy basil) mentioned above. Many Chinese herbs are commonly used for that purpose. Ginseng can be a bit over stimulating for some people, but rhodiola helps promote “calm” energy and is a better choice for those who are battling panic attacks and is also supportive in relieving depression. (Find rhodiola here.) Adaptogens are substances (like some Chinese herbs) that help our bodies adapt to stress and to regulate its stress response. Many herbs fall under the category of adaptogens–you can find a lot of information online on adaptogens. Maca root is the root of a cruciferous plant that grows in the mountains of South America (sometimes called Peruvian ginseng) and is another popular adaptogen. It contains alkaloids that have been found to help support the endocrine system and fight stress and fatigue. It is less expensive if you buy bags of the raw powder rather than capsules and only a very small amount is used (1/2 to 1 teaspoon a day mixed in water or food), so it lasts a long time. (Find raw Maca root powder here.) Amino acid therapy is another natural approach to consider researching.
15. One of the books I read on stress said that humans are one of the only “animals” who don’t make their own vitamin C! Interestingly, it said that when animals are under stress their bodies make large additional quantities of vitamin C for their bodies to use. In addition to vitamin C, B vitamins are also important during times of stress and can make a big difference for some people.
16. Cod liver, fish, or krill oil are recommended for anything stress, anxiety, or depression related. Some studies have shown they can be equally effective as prescription meds for mild to moderate depression, so it really does work, plus it’s actually good for you. I wouldn’t take any less than 1,000 mg/day, 2,000 or more is probably better (although my understanding is that krill oil absorbs more readily, so apparently you can take less of it). (Find the fermented cod liver oil here, which I recommend because it’s the most natural and has all the right ratios of vitamin A to vitamin D – experiment with amounts, I’d probably start with 1 Tablespoon/day or 3 caps for those with these type of problems or other health issues. If you wonder if that’s too much D, you may want to be tested. Remember I am not a doctor or naturopath!)
17. There are other more interventional type approaches (such as bio-identical hormone therapy), but I think it’s advisable to seek the guidance of a naturopath or other health care provider well versed in natural treatment of depression, anxiety, and adrenal fatigue before venturing too far beyond the basic recommendations that you would most likely be told to follow anyway.
18. See below for books that were the most helpful for me.
19. The vast size of the supplement section designated for stress in any natural foods or supplement store is a testament to the fact that if you are struggling with these issues, you are not alone. The other side of this is that we sometimes forget that it is normal to experience occasional depression or anxiety, even for periods of time. The human experience includes the full spectrum of emotions, including difficult as well as wonderful seasons of life and everything in between. I wonder if we sometimes have unrealistic expectations of ourselves and neglect to give ourselves permission to grieve or otherwise process emotional challenges. I know how scary it is to “crash” and feel that your mind, emotions, and body are out of control. Talking with others who understand, especially someone who has been there and made it through, can help to balance hopelessness and remind you of the reality that people are not only fragile, but also resilient.
20. For me, the above tips were in lieu of meds–I actually tried Paxil briefly and the side effects were awful, so I gave up quickly on that route. I figured out what I shared by both research and trial and error. No meds now, or since the first couple months of trying to deal with PTSD way, way back. Healing was very much gradual–so gradual that sometimes it didn’t feel like I was making progress, but when I looked back over several months and especially a year’s time I could see quite a bit of progress. It’s sort of like 1 1/2 steps forward, 1 big step back. Really, to be free of the PTSD it was about 5 years, but keep in mind that during those years I was continually, slowly improving, so that by the end of those years I found myself wondering, “Gosh am I ‘normal’ now? Maybe!” Of course, what is “normal” anyway? :-) I like to say it’s a setting on your washing machine. I’m not sure if anybody really completely arrives at “normal” in this life!
“We live in Waco, TX–just moved last summer after living in Hawaii (on the Big Island) which was after we lived in South Africa–lots of transition in the last few years. I’m a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom of Luke, who is almost 16, and Hannah, who is almost 18 and will be starting college at Baylor University in the fall. My husband, David, is the acute care and outpatient therapy manager (physical, occupational, and speech therapy) at a hospital here in Waco. I’ve been doing well (PTSD and related health issues) for several years now–probably 7 or 8 years, though I find my stress tolerance level isn’t what I think it used to be. Of course I’m not as young as I used to be either!”
Resources to check out from Jill:
- Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome,
by James Wilson (explains the effects of stress on our bodies and how to help your body get well)
- What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Premenopause: Balance Your Hormones and Your Life From Thirty to Fifty, by Dr. John Lee (although I was not yet in premenopause, this book does a great job of explaining women’s hormones and also how stress can throw it off balance)
- Coping with Trauma: Hope Through Understanding, by Jon G. Allen (helped me understand the complexities of the effects of trauma and provided some guidance in walking through the healing process)
- The Bible (this was and still is my anchor to reality and a constant reminder of my inexhaustible source of hope)
- Next book on my list to read: The GAPS Diet – Gut and Psychology Syndrome, by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride (My daughter has multiple food allergies, which she would like to be rid of.)
More ideas from me:
- The Mood Cure: The 4-Step Program to Take Charge of Your Emotions–Today
- GAPS Guide (Simple Steps to Heal Bowels, Body and Brain) – a companion guide to the GAPS book.
- Internal Bliss – GAPS Cookbook - recipes designed for those following the Gut and Psychology Syndrome Diet
- Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats