I’ve had depression on and off in my adult years, most recently for 5 years (undiagnosed for 4), but no matter whether I was actively depressed or not, winter was always worst. Seasonal Affective Disorder has been part of my life for the last decade, and as they say it’s a risk factor for major depressive episodes and post-partum depression. I primarily blamed the lack of light, though outdoor time and exercise also seemed to be factors. For years, all I wanted to do in winter was hibernate: curl up in a ball while eating cookies, breakfast cereal, and deluxe pb&j as comfort food. Motivating myself to get out in the cold and move was extra hard due to brain fog and that whiny, exhausted, helpless “I don’t want to!” feeling. I spent the whole season self-flagellating over my lack of motivation, chastising myself for not doing more to help myself. I always gained a little weight in winter too.
Not this year.
This year, I had no brain fog, no “I don’t want to!” feeling, no carb cravings, no self-flagellation, no wondering what’s wrong with me, no gaining weight. I did notice lower energy levels and needing more sleep, but it was a manageable difference that felt seasonally appropriate, related to the shorter days. It wasn’t psychologically painful.
What made the difference? I can’t chalk it up to the Vitamin D supplements; I was taking those last year, too. Walking a mile to and from work most days probably had a little to do with it, but I know from past experience that wouldn’t be enough to make a longtime condition simply vanish. The major clue turned out to be that I wasn’t craving carbs, because I haven’t been craving carbs since I officially quit eating wheat.
About a year ago, I did an experiment: I stopped eating wheat for three weeks. There were a couple specific things about my own health fueling my curiosity, but it basically comes down to wondering what the gluten-free hype was about and whether it would make a difference for me. If it did, I could decide how to proceed. If it didn’t change anything, I could go back to my normal diet.
Three weeks later, I ate a sandwich. Not just any sandwich; it was on Ithaca Bakery rye. The good stuff. Only within 24 hours, I was in a world of hurt. My joints and sinuses ached like nobody’s business and I felt awful mentally too. It was so bad that my cravings for my old comfort foods evaporated instantly. I wanted nothing to do with wheat ever again.
Thanks to a couple accidental exceptions to my new no-wheat policy, the world of hurt results have been repeated enough for me to know it wasn’t just a fluke. What I can’t explain is why I never noticed it when I was eating wheat regularly. Never mind; I sure notice it now.
Over the summer, I also cut back significantly on dairy and experienced the easiest round of seasonal allergies ever since I started reacting to ragweed in 2005. Then this winter was the easiest I’ve had as an adult, psychologically speaking. I never imagined that these two major dietary changes would lead so directly to marked improvements in allergies and depression. I was delighted but not surprised when I lost 10 pounds in two months after quitting wheat. I was glad to listen to my body’s preferences and start to feel better overall. What I didn’t expect was that my SAD wouldn’t come back. I didn’t expect my seasonal allergies to be almost cured.
It turns out that the brain chemistry model of depression may be missing the whole point. When I read Kelly Brogan’s latest post, Depression Starts in Your Gut, this morning, the pieces finally clicked into place. Chronic inflammation is the underlying cause of so many modern ailments. Another name for the “world of hurt” joint pain I get after eating wheat? Inflammation.
I was talking to a friend about my gluten-free experiment the other day, and he had a horrified expression on his face as he contemplated never eating another bagel again. “I can’t live like that. I don’t want to,” he said. Guys, I remember that feeling. Carb-based comfort foods were both crutch and treat for me. I used to say that if I was addicted to anything, it was milk. My acupuncturists gently encouraged me to reduce dairy consumption for three years before I would even consider it. I couldn’t imagine living without entire food groups. Wouldn’t that be restrictive, boring, and unhealthy? Wouldn’t I be in perpetual mourning, feeling denied and left out, if I couldn’t eat my favorite foods and what everyone else was eating?
Here’s my question: Does anyone feel that way about fruits and vegetables? Or do we just feel that way about wheat, dairy, and other foods that might be causing problems? My personal suspicion is that the very foods we can’t imagine giving up are the ones that we need to ditch. Truly healthy food doesn’t have that addictive, can’t-live-without-it quality. It’s enjoyable and delicious, but the thought of never eating kale again doesn’t induce panic attacks. For me, the flip side of breaking those addictions isn’t what I expected. Instead of mourning, I’m celebrating my improved health. Instead of feeling deprived, I’m grateful that I listened to my body’s preferences. I can honestly say that cookies and cheese no longer appeal to me. I’m not struggling to ignore their siren song; I don’t even hear it anymore. I can’t even say that it was “worth it” to stop eating wheat and dairy, because that implies that it was a sacrifice. Healing these specific conditions that have plagued me for years and feeling better every day of my life is amazing. My only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.
I’m not making universal dietary prescriptions here. There are people out there who can eat wheat and dairy without issues, but I think they’re both a bigger problem for many people than some want to admit. Here’s what I’d encourage you to do: try your own experiments. Find out what’s really going on in your body. You probably already have an idea which foods or food groups are most problematic for you; I know I did. My own weight loss journey began when I stopped eating breakfast cereal as a comfort food several months before my no-wheat experiment. Start small and listen to your body. If your experience is anything like mine, you may be blown away by the results.