My struggle with Borderline Personality Disorder and anxiety have felt lifelong at this point. The past decade of my life has felt like twice that because of how the symptoms have affected me. I’ve searched for any way to help mitigate these effects–DBT self-taught exercises, therapy (in person and online), journaling, self-esteem, self-compassion, trauma healing, and finally, physical health changes. I consider all of this to be a holistic approach to mental health, and one method is not necessarily better or more helpful than another; it’s a joint effort, and they all contribute to my mental health in different ways.
However, I want to talk about my diet and supplements and how they’ve affected my body and mind. My struggle with brain fog, lack of energy, joint pain, and low mood plus mood swings was such a way of life, I was convinced that there was no cure. I thought it was just part of being mentally ill and I either hadn’t worked hard enough to overcome it, or it just wasn’t going to happen.
I decided to get serious at the end of 2019 with my diet and physical health. Here is an in-depth look at my journey with diet and supplements, what helped, and how it affected my mental health. This is just my experience; I’m not advocating that everyone has to do this to see results for their mental health. Rather, I encourage you to research these things yourself and do what’s best for you.
Low-Carb Diet for More Energy, Less Brain Fog, and Fewer Mood Swings
When I came to terms with the effects of sugar and how it was wreaking havoc on my body and brain, I was devastated about having to start a low-carb diet. I have PCOS and as a result, am insulin-resistant. I was convinced it would be the hardest thing I would do–giving up carbs. I mourned the loss of macaroni and cheese, pizza, Cheerios, and bread. My life revolved around carbs, but they were my enemy.
In December of 2019, I decided to get serious. I spent an entire weekend researching recipes and culling together a list of things I wanted from the store. It took a lot of research, trial and error, and many weeks to figure it all out completely. I won’t downplay the difficulty. It didn’t all happen at once, but after a few weeks, I settled into a routine. Now I eat an average of 50g of carbs per day, with some days as high as 80g. I’m in the habit of cooking a big casserole, or more recently, a frittata, to parcel out for the week so I don’t have to do some crazy cooking every day. Meal prep and meal planning were intimidating at first, but they have become a godsend. Preparation is truly your greatest weapon against fear.
It was hell adjusting to the carb cravings, without giving in, and I found it hard to stay balanced in my diet. However, the benefits of the low-carb diet were obvious pretty early, and they only got better. No more brain fog. Actual energy to speak of, mental and physical. It seemed like a miracle. No aching joints. No random mood swings (I mean, I’m prone to those anyway, but they weren’t so severe or frequent). I felt in control of my mind and body again after several weeks.
I can still confidently say that the low-carb diet life has significantly improved my mental health, as well as my energy levels, my mental clarity, and my overall physical well-being. These physical side effects also worked to improve my mental health, since I was able to pursue hobbies and work out much easier. With brain fog gone and energy to spare, I felt I could do anything.
Also, I don’t have to give up the good carbs forever. If I never indulged in pizza again, I would not want to live in that world. I just have to prepare myself for the consequences. Carbs make me feel like crap. I don’t want to feel like crap. So I limit them in my diet (getting them mostly from vegetables and high-fat dairy) and enjoy the occasional cheat day.
Here’s a sample of what a typical day looks like for me, though I do vary it up sometimes and switch out the meals when I get bored:
- Meal replacement shake
- Greek yogurt with 5% fat
- String cheese
- “Seed” bar snack (with pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, and sunflower seeds) // or a low-carb trail mix
- Casserole (with chicken, broccoli, spinach, mushrooms, and cheese) – Sometimes I eat red beans with cauliflower rice instead.
- Mini bell peppers with spinach and artichoke dip
- Scrambled eggs with breakfast sausage or a vegetable frittata
- A spoonful of peanut butter or almond butter
This doesn’t may not seem like a lot for one day, but it’s perfectly satiating. It took some time for my insulin levels to even out, and for my body to stop always craving/demanding carbs (which I confused for genuine hunger at first). I don’t starve myself or let myself go hungry, which is what I thought in the beginning that people did. No, there’s just an adjustment period to life without so many carbs! Your body needs to learn to run off fat, primarily.
Starting Berberine also did wonders for my blood sugar and helping me lose weight.
Whole Food Multivitamin (with Ashwagandha) for Diet Supplementation and Stress Management
A multivitamin is just good sense, regardless of what your goals or other treatments are. I chose one with Ashwagandha because this Indian root is a natural stress-reducer and can improve depression and anxiety symptoms. I sometimes take Ashwagandha on its own, but it often gives me a headache and this overwhelming sense of focus that can make me feel tense, ironically. Having it in a daily vitamin doesn’t give me this effect though; it’s such a helpful addition to my treatment plan and has been vital in improving mental health for me.
Besides just the Ashwagandha, I chose this multivitamin because it has a little bit of everything that I was looking for, and it’s made with whole foods, so I feel confident in the type of nutrition I’m getting to help supplement my diet. By the way, this is not a plug for the brand, nor am I getting paid in any way, not even as an Amazon affiliate. It’s just how I selected my multivitamin. I have tried other brands, too, that meet a similar criteria. This is my favorite though because of the stress blend.
Whole Food Meal Replacement Shake to Supplement My Diet
Looking for an alternative to my breakfast cereal, I decided to swap in a meal replacement shake. This one, like my multivitamin, is made from whole foods. It’s also Amazon’s top seller in the category and one of the best deals on the market for the quality and type of ingredients versus serving size. I find it takes the edge off my hunger in the morning while providing necessary vitamins, minerals, and fiber. I typically drink it at 7am and don’t eat again until 10am.
In case you’re wondering, I researched vitamin doses, toxicity levels, and upper limits. I learned that vitamin overdose is pretty hard to do. The levels of the fat-soluble vitamins, like A, D, E, and K, are not nearly high enough, between this and my multivitamin, to cause concern of toxicity or overdose. The rest of the vitamins and minerals are mostly water-soluble and will filter out through the urine if there is excess.
Berberine for Blood Sugar Management
This came to my attention because I have PCOS and struggle with insulin-resistance. I have read that Berberine is an effective blood sugar-manager, like Metformin, which is often prescribed to women with PCOS and people with Diabetes, alike. It is not a weight loss supplement, but managing insulin has been a key step to help me lose weight and to help even out my blood sugar.
I thought low-carb alone would help because I am not obese, but as I struggled to lose weight, I thought I’d better try Berberine. I’m glad I did. This hasn’t been part of the mental health aspect directly, but I wanted to include it because it’s been just as much apart of my holistic approach as anything.
Turmeric Curcumin for Anti-Inflammatory Properties
Known for its anti-inflammatory properties, I picked up Turmeric (specifically with Curcumin because it’s the most active compound in Turmeric). Turmeric has been scientifically-proven to have an effect on depression and arthritis, as well as possibly aiding in preventing Alzheimer’s, cancer, and heart disease. This combined with a low-carb diet have both been instrumental in helping my joints. I used to feel like I was in pain from doing very little. I often felt like I was just moving in quick sand. I worried about working a physically-demanding job in retail was taking a toll on my body. Now, I’m both able to work out effectively, and just make it through my every day life without feeling the creaks and groans of someone twice my age.
Magnesium to Combat Depression Symptoms
Another one proven to help with depression symptoms, as well as muscle weakness, muscle cramps, and fatigue, magnesium is a helpful mineral, one that most of us don’t get enough of. I started taking it as a supplement, but two weeks in, I noticed that I was incredibly tired every day. Not just regular tired from lack of sleep or a long day, but a deep body and mind exhaustion. I knew something was off. In addition to this, my mood seemed to be rapidly declining and leading me down a dark path. I listened to my gut and looked it up; taking more than 350 mg of a magnesium supplement can cause a mild overdose, with symptoms including lethargy and depression (not to mention a feverish feeling and nausea, which I was also experiencing, but I had chalked up to other explanations).
While getting magnesium from diet is recommended, only 350mg is recommended in supplement form. I was taking 500mg of magnesium, not to mention getting it from my multivitamin and protein shake. It just goes to show how some supplements can walk the line between help and harm depending on how we use them. It’s much better to try to get magnesium from foods, like leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds, dry beans, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. I have to skip the last two (I eat dairy, but I opt for high fat because they are generally lower in sugar), but I think I’m covered now in other areas. If I ever want to go back to the supplement, I believe I’ll cut my tablet in half because the benefits are too good to pass up.
L-Theanine to Manage Anxiety and Stress
An amino acid from green tea, l-theanine has been proven effective for anxiety, general stress, trouble sleeping, and increased focus and attention span. I take 100 to 200mg with my morning coffee because of the synergy between caffeine and l-theanine.
I love it for the increased focus and more relaxed feelings I have during a normal work day. L-theanine has been so critical for my mental health, not only in helping me relax and fend off symptoms of anxiety, but in sharpening my cognitive functions. I don’t take it every day, but it is safe, as studies indicate no long-term side effects for up to 5 months of use.
CBD Oil for Mood
I fell in love with CBD oil over a year ago. It took some research for me to understand what to look for in CBD oil, but it was well worth the effort. Unfortunately, I cannot take it everyday because it’s easy to build up a tolerance. Plus, good CBD oil is expensive, and I don’t want to blow through it super quickly.
The biggest effect I noticed when I first took it (and this was before I even started doing diet and supplemental changes) was that it didn’t make me happier, it just made it easier to get out of a bad mood. My mind felt more pliable and receptive to change. It didn’t make me happy or feel “high”, like its counterpart from marijuana, THC. I found it was simply easier to let things go and change my mood. I still had to put in the work though to get there. I’ve heard plenty of anecdotal evidence that it’s also good for reducing chronic pain/inflammation and helping with sleep. I personally don’t notice these benefits, but I will take it on bad pain days with my advil, just in case it is doing something.
Mostly though, I use it for its mood-boosting attributes.
Mental Health Treatment Is a Holistic Approach
Exercise, getting enough sleep, proper nutrition, and continuing my self-treatment plan have all been vital in caring for my physical and mental health. I’m nowhere near fully healed or fully recovered, and maybe I never will be. That’s not my goal. My goal is to feel better for longer amounts of time. To be able to cope with intense, negative emotions. To be able to love myself and see myself as worthy. To increase confidence. To have energy to follow my passions. To be happier where I am, instead of constantly pursuing some goal that makes me think, “okay, now THIS will ultimately make me happy”.
My nutritional plan and supplements have been incredible in changing my life, but I also have learned valuable skills and coping mechanisms through DBT, self-led exercises, journaling, and therapy. It’s a whole puzzle–without one of these pieces, it’s incomplete (also, it’s confusing and frustrating, like a puzzle).
Related post: Exercising When You Have A Mental Illness
If you’re looking for answers to questions you keep having, I encourage you to do research–articles, books, forums, anything can be useful if you have a good source. If you’re able to try different things, even better.
There are still a number of resources I haven’t tried due to cost or inadequate research. Additionally, when introducing supplements or nootropics, you must consider how they might interact or affect one another. For now, what I’m doing is working for me though.
I hope my experience encourages you. Not to do exactly what I’ve done, but to look into options for yourself.