One very important thing I learned over the course of my mental health recovery journey, which was reinforced by my professional work and training as a peer support specialist and clinical social worker, is that I cannot separate my mental health from my physical health. I am a whole being, and my mind, body, and spirit are completely interconnected. When I was diagnosed with both bipolar disorder and Crohn’s disease 25 years ago, my doctors and health care providers had their separate areas of specialty and usually did not communicate with each other. They each focused on the symptoms that fell within their area of expertise. I went to my psychiatrist and therapist for my mental health symptoms, and to my gastroenterologist for my physical health issues. Now, I am happy to witness the growing trend of holistic, integrative, and collaborative approaches to healthcare. Developing symptoms of Crohn’s disease and bipolar disorder at the same time helped me to recognize the mind/body connection sooner than I might have otherwise. Intuitively, I knew that my mental health and physical health symptoms were connected. Today, the brain/gut connection is finally being recognized and acknowledged in the medical field, as well as the interconnectedness of all body systems and aspects of ourselves.
Therefore, the wellness tools and self-care practices that I use to maintain my mental health and wellness are a lot of the same ones that I use for my physical health, as well as my spiritual health. The practices I implement on a regular basis include yoga, meditation, journaling, exercise, stress management, following good sleep hygiene, connecting with friends and participating in social activities, doing meaningful work I enjoy, expressing my creativity, and spending time in nature, among many others.
However, I can say with certainty that the one thing that has made the most difference in all aspects of my health has been changing what I eat and the way I think about food. About four years ago, I discovered and decided to follow a specific healing program and diet for Crohn’s disease. Even though I had followed a vegan diet in the past, this diet was very different from anything I had tried before. At first, I was concerned because it seemed to go against what a lot of “experts” had told me about nutrition, but my intuition and the research I began to do made me feel more confident about trying it. Although the several month initial cleansing and detoxification process was difficult to go through, it was completely worth it to me because it healed my symptoms of Crohn’s disease. At the time, I believed that my mental health and my mood was stable, and so I was not expecting the incredible change that I experienced mentally and on every other level of my being. My default mood changed to feeling happy, excited about life, energized, and self-confident. I was grounded, had more mental clarity, was sleeping better, felt more connected to my spirituality, and was functioning well in all areas of my life. It definitely was not the same type of “happy” I would feel in a euphoric manic episode.
In order to successfully follow this diet, I had to shift my mindset about food and learn how to eat for physical hunger and to fuel my body with the optimum and easiest to digest nutrition, rather than to eat for emotional comfort or other reasons that were not serving my health. In the process, my taste buds changed so that the unhealthy foods I used to eat and crave did not appeal to me anymore, and the foods that were the healthiest for me tasted the best. While I do not give nutrition or diet advice to others because I am not a nutritionist, I am happy to share what has worked for me and the reasons why it works. I follow a high fruit, low fat, mostly raw, vegan diet. If I am following it correctly (I admit that I am not always perfect), I eat no processed food, no refined oils, no added salt (I get my sodium from whole plant foods), and minimal seasonings. The non-raw foods I eat are lightly steamed vegetables. Otherwise, I eat raw, ripe, organic fruits and vegetables, a lot of greens, and a small amount of nuts and seeds. Changing to this diet and following it for over four years, along with the lifestyle changes I made, has transformed every area of my life. It was almost like going through a death experience and emerging on the other side a completely different person. I now have a confidence I never had before in my ability to keep myself well physically, mentally, and spiritually, and my future is brighter than ever before!