PTSD & Nutrition: How Food Can Boost Your Post-Trauma Recovery
Let food be thy medicine. (Hippocrates)
Photo Credit: Zoom Team/ShutterShock
By the time I was eighteen my coping mechanisms had evolved into an all out campaign to regain control over myself and my world. Since the world no longer seemed safe, and since I no longer believed myself to have any control in it, I found ways to manufacture a sense of control. One of these ways was through an eating disorder. I became enormously anorexic as I bid to reclaim a sense of autonomy and strength.
Fast forward twenty years. I was five feet eight inches tall, 104 pounds, with advanced osteoporosis and a gut so permeable my body received little nutrition from the food I did consume. My stomach was always in knots, my intestines had trouble digesting and my liver enzymes skyrocketed inexplicably. Add to all of that, extreme symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and you can imagine how brittle, dark and sad my world had become. What you may not immediately imagine was the fog in which I lived.
Many survivors experience problems with dissociation, concentration, memory and focus. Handling post-traumatic stress symptoms (often including extreme insomnia), plus intense feelings, emotions and memories, uses up an enormous amount of brain power. Its normal to experience a breakdown in thought processes. When you add a lack of nutrition to that equation it can be virtually impossible to have the strength, courage or determination to do the work of recovery. In my case, that meant sliding into an even deeper depression while scheduling weekly IV vitamin infusions as I attempted to boost functioning.
According to Dr. Terry Wahls, Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of Iowa, In terms of what their DNA is looking for, the vast majority of Americans are starving themselves and wondering why they feel so bad. Many of our health problems, she asserts, including our mental health problems, can be dramatically improved by changing what we eat, reducing our toxins, and improving our exercise. Dr. Wahls herself is a clinical example.
By October 2007 Dr. Wahls Secondary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis had advanced to such an extent that she was confined to a motorized wheelchair. I had no hope that I was going to be back on my bike, she says. No hope that Id be walking around the hospital without a cane. No hope that my mental clarity would return.
While the medical world told her to expect continued decline, Dr. Wahls used her professional training to research both her condition and how nutrition impacts the body. What she found and how she arranged it into a nutrition plan is what she calls Intensive Directive Nutrition. Now a part of all of Dr. Wahls work with trauma, PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury patients, the Wahls Diet organizes nutrient intake so that a body has all the essential building blocks to run its chemistry.
Wahls explains it this way: As long as those biochemical reactions [in your body] are proceeding optimally you and I will feel fantastic and will function very well. But as soon as those biochemical reactions dont function properly, the structures dont get made, or reactions dont happen at all, our health deteriorates. That can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, or in our case, problems thinking: memory, recall, focus, attention . For Americans, according to research 90 percent of us fail to eat the recommended daily allowance of vitamins (especially the B vitamin group), minerals and essential fatty acids so our brains are starved of the optimal building blocks they need for biochemistry.
Dr. Wahls has a solution for that. At the base of the Wahls Diet lies the principle that you must have nine cups of fruits and vegetables a day. This core foundation centers around the consumption of:
- Greens -- leafy vegetables, especially kale, spinach, romaine lettuce
- Sulfurs -- onion, garlic, chives, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, mushrooms, asparagus, artichoke hearts
- Colors -- carrots, red cabbage, colored peppers, berries, oranges, peaches, squash, things that are brightly colored throughout the flesh of the plant
If that sounds like a lot, dont worry. The central method of getting all of this nutrition comes in the form of fresh produce whipped into a convenient shake to accompany any meal. The benefits of making a commitment to this include improved energy and moods, mental clarity, and physical health. Wahls cites lower blood pressure and improvements in such conditions as heart disease, hypoglycemia, and diabetes.
Wahls patients themselves offer a fabulous recommendation for the plan. By teaching patients how to eat so that theyre providing their brains more of the substrates, the building blocks, needed to do the biochemical processes properly, Wahls explains, what I see time and time again as people go back to eating properly, eating real food and learning how to eat greens, colors and sulfurs is that they come back saying they cant believe how much better they feel, how much less mental fog they have, how much easier it is to get along with their friends, their neighbors, their kids.
Wahls personal story, however, drives home the point of how nutrition impacts recovery. She recalls: When I started this intervention in November 2007, what I expected and what I was praying for was that I could slow down the rate of decline. By January I was walking with one cane. By March I was walking without canes. It wasnt until May, when I was able to walk around the block again without a cane, that I could begin to entertain the possibility that maybe I could recover. Maybe if I kept all this up over a series of years, maybe I could get back to normal. In addition to diet, Wahls intervention also included exercise and meditation.
Ultimately, normal is, in fact, what Wahls achieved. By October 2008 she was back on her bicycle and completed an 18-mile bike tour. She now rides her bicycle to work. What Im learning, she reflects, is that if we fix all of the health behavior issues then it is quite possible to not only stop the progression of disease but to experience steady improvement and return to function.
In her book, MINDING MY MITOCHONDRIA, Wahls gives a deeper understanding of the biochemistry and biology of the body in an approachable, lay understanding packed with science, metaphors, and recipes. The book also walks you through phases of diet alteration so that you can choose what feels right to do and how and when. (I myself recently began adding a single shake every morning and have experienced an enormous increase in energy, mental clarity, focus and concentration.)
In all of this, the implication for the benefits in PTSD recovery is enormous. Having the right vitamins (B, K, A, C), minerals and essential fatty acids improves blood flow to the brain, the construction of neurotransmitters, the removal of cellular trash and protects from damage by free radicals. When you give your brain (and body) the elements necessary for optimal functioning the benefits flow into how you manage and process issues of mental health. Through nutrition, then, you can bring yourself to a place where you think more clearly and engage in resolving the psychological post-traumatic effects with which you struggle.
My complete PTSD recovery happened years before I discovered Dr. Wahls, but in my own way I found all of this theory to be true. Eventually, my destructive eating habits caused a complete crash in my health to the point that it became critically necessary for me to devise a new plan of action going forward. Getting on track with more consistent and well-balanced meals helped my body achieve a sense of safety and resilience. It also allowed my mind to gain some of those building blocks it needed for clearer thinking to work through the recovery process. Achieving freedom from post-traumatic stress syndrome begins with the commitment to doing the work. Then it depends on the necessary self-care to give your mind and body a solid and healthy foundation from which to explore your traumatic experience, its effects and what you need in order to feel whole, connected and at peace.
Michele Rosenthal is the founder of www.healmyptsd.com and the host of YOUR LIFE AFTER TRAUMA on Seaview Radio. Her trauma recovery memoir will be released in March 2012.