Sweet Anxious Mess - One woman’s tale of how a shift in her diet, shifted her mental health
Let me say straight up, I am not a doctor, dietician or nutritionist, those guys are the real deal, I am a mum and entrepreneur, and this is my experience with Anxiety (capital A because in my mind it has one), and how I’ve helped to manage it.
When my daughter was 2, I experienced anxiety for the first time. It was Mother’s Day, we were in the middle of trying to sell our house, and it was the tail end of the biggest wedding season I had ever worked in my small business as a celebrant. That evening I had a panic attack, which would be the catalyst of the cloud of anxiety that would continue to follow me around for the next two years.
My diet wasn’t great, so I made the decision to start going to the gym, signed up to a program for “busy mums” and followed it to the calorie, while going to the gym 4 times a week. The exercise helped quieten the simmering of anxiety slightly, but if triggered I would panic. I followed this regimen for months, but neither my weight nor my mental health shifted.
I went and saw a physiologist and established a mental health care plan, she explained to me that this was something that would likely be with me for life, and that I needed to work on lessening my mental load, while learning coping mechanisms. I struggled with the permanency of this diagnosis. Anxiety was just going to be this other looming character in my life, forever?
In May 2017 I hit breaking point. We had just welcomed our son, our daughter was in preschool, my business was steady, and I was returning to work part time at a consultancy firm. However, my mental health was at its breaking point and I felt like I wasn’t succeeding at any facet of my life. I comforted myself at nights with chocolate and cups of tea in front of Netflix, for you know, self-care.
I scheduled in to see my GP to get back on the mental health care plan bandwagon, willing to try medication and whatever else was needed to be able to think clearly and not be constantly on the verge of panic. The night before my appointment I googled “natural ways to relieve anxiety” and one option popped up a few times. Sure, there were recommendations of essential oils and yoga and herbal tea, all of which I was actively trying, but the big one was quitting sugar.
I needed something drastic, so I dug deeper, sure, cutting refined sugar is pretty well known as being a smart thing to do for general health, but also, I wanted to cut everything my body metabolises as sugar. When I saw my GP, I mentioned I wanted to try it seeing as I was breastfeeding, and I wanted to see if it worked before adding pharmaceuticals into my diet. She gave me the (sceptical) go ahead and off I went.
If you weren’t aware, there are 37 different things that are just other words for sugar (listed below), and when I did some research, I found that lots of the fibs I had been telling myself about the food I ate were in fact that. As trends go, we are let to believe that the “healthy” raw slice at the vegan café is going to be good for us, while its sweetened with rice malt syrup, dates, agave etc.
Different Names for Sugar
These are some of the possible words for “sugar” which may appear on a label. I'm not going to go through all 37 of them, but here are a couple for reference: agave nectar, barley malt sugar, brown rice syrup, cane crystals or corn sweetner.
As Dietitian Paula Norris (@movingdietitian) mentions here; “Even raw treats sweetened with dried fruit such as dates end up being calorie-dense, and have up to 60 per cent sugar content, as the amount of dates used in these recipes can be quite high. Raw treats can be as calorie dense as normal sweets, so treat these like you would any other treat!”
Now it’s important to note that whole fruits, while containing Fructose, are also made up of balanced nutrients (fibre etc) which means our body slowly metabolises them and (for me) they don’t affect my mental health, I still eat fruit every day.
As a busy mum and small business owner, I remember the days where I would chuck a muesli/nut bar, and maybe an Up and Go, into my handbag as I was racing out the door heading to the office via school drop off. I know I am not alone in the 3pm sugar binge, or better yet, the “thank god the kids are asleep now give me all the dessert” bedtime ritual. Sure, I knew the treats would be bad for my weight, but it wasn’t until I started reading that all important sugar content section of the nutritional information, when I realised how wrong I was getting it. (Tip: Divide your grams of sugar by 4 and that gives you a rough idea of how many teaspoons there are. I often visualise what it would be like if I were to sit down to 5 teaspoons of white sugar… blergh!)
After a month of no sugar, I was anxiety free. Things that would ordinarily have triggered me didn’t. I had no buzzing anymore, and for the first time in a long time I had mental clarity. Now 18 months later, along with that clarity I have lost 26kgs and have for the first time in my adult life I have managed to maintain it. When I have been less strict (like when holidaying for example) I can feel the cloud try and loom in, so for me, it’s easier to stay off the sugars. Life is so much better without it.
We expect a lot of ourselves, to be able to carry the mental load of our homes, families and professional lives, and this is only made even harder when you have the anxiety cloud following you around. Anxiety is such a common battle that so many of us face, and we all manage it as best we can, so I share this story in case even one of you tries it, and it makes a difference. I personally found that prior to giving up sugars, even the bare minimum was too much for me to cope with, and I had no idea how I was ever going to be able to juggle everything and have success again. With the cloud lifted, I know it sounds a little cliché, but I do feel as if I am capable of anything.