I’ve always been an unhappy kind of person, prone to worrying and overthinking. Friends have called me pessimistic and irritable. I have felt pessimistic and irritable and unreasonably angry sometimes, and then guilty about it, which of course didn’t improve my mood.
It took me a long, long time to learn that this was just my body’s cycle of anxiety and depression.
Why do I say body for a mental health issue? Because over the last few years I’ve learned that much of what I thought was mental and emotional was actually triggered by the most basic of chemical reactions: digestion of food.
Only in my thirties did I figure out that I am intolerant to a whole range of common food ingredients (wheat, dairy, eggs, chocolate, and a bunch of other things, including a few vegetables, herbs and spices). Eating any of these makes me anything from mildly lethargic to feeling too sick to get out of bed for a week. What took longer to figure out was that these foods also trigger a direct emotional response.
Following a restrictive diet made me feel healthier and full of new-found energy and joy. I kept attributing my improved emotional state to my improved physical health. I was feeling well. I slept well, had the energy to work, party, travel and do all of the things that 'normal' people seemed to enjoy so effortlessly; of course I was happier.
This happiness was slightly diminished by the emotional and physical labor of being constantly vigilant about what I eat. The list of foods my body finds hard to digest is long. Learning every ingredient of every morsel I’m putting in my mouth is difficult - impossible even - if I eat out or have a 'normal' life which involves socialising at restaurants, events and parties.
But several adverse food reactions later, I began to suspect that there was a stronger reason: some foods trigger my anxiety, so that anxiety itself manifests like an allergic reaction.
Science hasn’t quite proven this yet, but recent research is suggestive. A report in the New York Times two years ago described emerging research that indicates that “gut microbes communicate with the nervous system using some of the same neurochemicals that relay messages in the brain,” and “micro-organisms in the gut” can somehow communicate with “the deep-brain structures thought to be responsible for elemental emotions like anxiety.”Research has also found that “certain bacteria were more likely to be associated with depressive patients.”
The upshot: “probiotic bacteria could be tailored to treat specific psychological diseases.” And while access to such treatment is probably a way off for us, knowing what causes such moods, and that the right foods can make us feel better - emotionally and not just physically - can be life-changing.
Curious to know if it was just me, I spoke to a few other people who have changed their diets to improve their health. Aditi Mallya, a 32-year-old journalist who lives in Delhi, says, “I’ve noticed gluten, lactose, and yeast make me lethargic, and consuming these objects for days leads to mood swings. I get very irritable and feel low if I keep consuming allergens.”
Naomi Barton, a 25-year-old publishing industry professional, who also lives in Delhi and has gluten sensitivity, denies having a direct mental health reaction to gluten. However, she says, “I do note a decrease in attention span, fatigue, generally feeling lifeless or emotional around the time when my tummy is upset.”
For those of us whom certain foods affect in this way - keeping in mind that every body is different and has different needs - managing our diet can dramatically improve mental health.
For me, this manifested in something I never thought I possessed: calmness. When I’m well, I’m actually happy enough to not be irritated easily, but to react with kindness and patience.
I’m still often unwell, though my constant vigilance ensures that any food reactions are mild and infrequent. But now that I know what it is like to not have anxiety, as well as what triggers it, it seems less of a bugbear. I can attempt to laugh at it and say, that’s just my gut, literally.
When I have emotional overreactions - worrying about something minor, snapping at my partner, crying when I watch a movie - I am quicker to recognise that this is a symptom. It means I may be going through PMS (Premenstrual) or a food reaction. It is not a personality flaw or a reasonable response to outside events. I’ll wait for it to pass and not allow it to affect my decisions, or, on days when anxiety is too present and pulsating through my body, I’ll be kind to myself, take it slow and do things that distract and nourish me.