04/09/2013 12:34 EDT | Updated 06/09/2013 05:12 EDT

How Changing My Diet Helped My Anxiety

The dietary changes I was making were not only helping my stomach, but my anxiety was lessening. Our stomach is often referred to as our "second brain." How we treat our digestive system can dramatically change our emotions and subsequently alter mood disorders in a positive manner.

Flickr: Brothers Le

I am a 34-year-old wife and a mother to a nine-year old daughter. From the age of 15 on I began to develop anxiety. The majority of it hit me while in high school. I was a perfectionist and aimed high when it came to grades. As soon as I began to struggle with a couple of classes in high school, I felt as though my world was crumbling. Unfortunately, I was unable to properly explain my feelings and emotions, and in the end was what I felt wrongly diagnosed with clinical depression and general anxiety disorder. I was then prescribed an array of anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication to combat anxiety. My anxiety would often lead to bouts of depression and then the medication would lead to a mix of unpleasant side effects that would once again leave me anxious and then depressed. It was a vicious cycle that I hoped one day would end.

In the Fall of 2010, I finally decided to taper off of my one last medication -- a Benzodiazepine called Clonazepam. I was tired of the side effects from the medication and I was mentally ready to take on my anxiety in a more natural way. Little did I know the horrific journey I was about to embark on.

When I made my decision to go off of my medication, I knew it was going to be a long-term commitment. I had read enough information about Benzodiazepines to know many struggled tapering off of them. There was a list of withdrawal effects I could possibly endure, and it scared me. Plus, I had learned to view medication as my Band-Aid. When I was anxious, I knew I had that bottle of pills to rely on for a quick fix of sorts. If I was going through a bout of depression, I knew that with one prescription, my problems could go away, but what I learned over the years was that this was only a temporary fix as these meds often led to bigger problems for me. Now I was going to have to learn how to deal with anxiety naturally. I was, in a sense, going to remove my safety net (the pills) and learn how to walk this tight rope on my own.

The first thing I looked at was my diet. I knew what I was doing wasn't working well for me. I often struggled with stomach problems due to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (and the anti-depressants aggravated it) and I was aware in the back of my mind that if I could make some simple changes I might be able to live more comfortably.

I had developed a love for soda pop while on anti-depressants, and with that love of brown pop came weight gain which led to MORE anxiety and depression. By cutting the pop out, I automatically cut down on some of my anxiety and my weight began to slowly drop. My next step was to cut out dairy -- a suggestion made by my family doctor. I had noticed a pattern of eating dairy and then suffering the consequences, so she suggested cutting it out for a few months to see if I would notice a change.

I was worried about quitting dairy as I had a love for cheese, but it was surprisingly easy when I saw the quick results. The stomach pains lessened and my bowel movements became more regular. The next food to cut out was the red meat. It had proven to bother me countless times so it became a no-brainer that this too should be eliminated from my diet.

Over time it became easier to see clearly what foods did and didn't bother me. I would keep a journal of my meals and would notice more patterns pop up. Eventually I eliminated most sweet treats, all fried foods and over time all meat but fish. At first there was some resentment when I had to cut out so many "fun foods". Why me? Why couldn't I go out to a restaurant with friends and thoroughly enjoy the fried pickles and nachos.

However, all of these changes were not only helping my stomach, but my anxiety was lessening. Our stomach is often referred to as our "second brain." How we treat our digestive system can dramatically change our emotions and subsequently alter mood disorders in a positive manner.

Then there was the MSG. And it was everywhere! Many people don't know it's disguised under different names. Yeast Extract, Soy Protein, and Gelatin are a few examples. I noticed every time I tried eating chips laden with MSG, my face would burn up, my heart would race, I would become dizzy and then this deep fatigue would set in. If MSG was making my body react this way physically, how was it affecting me emotionally?

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So my mission deepened as I was now prepared to make all my meals as fresh and unprocessed as possible. With that came so many new flavours and spices -- raw honey, cayenne pepper, fresh garlic, apple cider vinegar (to name a few) -- and food became exciting! Plus, I discovered that all these wonderful foods and spices had natural healing properties for so many ailments.

Avocados are high in protein which is perfect for someone like me who does not eat meat. Fresh garlic has anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. Lemons are high in thiamin which helps our central nervous system, as well as magnesium which is proven to help calm nerves and conditions such as restless leg syndrome.

Coming off the Benzodiazepines was the most difficult thing I have ever had to do in my life, and at 19 months free, I am still not fully healed from the effects these meds had on me physically and mentally. But in a way this experience was a blessing in disguise as it forced me to look at myself. It created my determination to lead a healthier lifestyle -- which in return lessens the feelings of anxiety and especially depression. I have learned that it IS possible to deal with mental health issues without medication. The first step, in my opinion, is to put MYSELF first. We are so busy pleasing others -- whether a spouse, a child, a friend or co-worker -- that we forget "me."

Every morning I have a routine. It begins with a stretch and a smile. I then tell myself "today is a new day -- it could be awesome". When I shower, I view it as a sort of therapy and I continue my stretches as the warm water falls on me. I even throw in a little yoga -- I guess it's my own interpretation of hot yoga. I have learned not to rush through life. I go for walks, I breathe in the fresh air, and I smile to the birds and squirrels. I exercise for pleasure, knowing that with it comes less tension and more sleep.

And most importantly, I accept that I'm not perfect. I make mistakes, I am emotional, I can be anxious at times and that is okay. I am Me.

By Sarah Koot

The Purple Fig is a community where women share personal and relatable stories; no ego, no shame. We're about life, love and all of the stuff that makes us yearn, squirm, and giggle. These stories make up the authentic and intriguing journey of a woman.

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