Depression as a Food Reaction

Matthew & Petra

Recently I tried reintroducing Macadamia Nuts into my Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) and I learned something about my mental health.

Organic raw dehydrated Macadamias were a go: I noticed no untoward effects.

But the supermarket non-organic kind in a tin were not. My stomach felt mildly inflamed, my energy plummeted and most interestingly, I felt quite depressed for several hours.

I could easily have ignored the stomach thing, but the depression was untenable.

I’d been upbeat & happy, then suddenly, about an hour after cracking the mac nut tin, all the joy and potential bled out of the world. I was no longer able to do my day. All I could do was steep in gloom, deep under the covers, with the woe of the world crashing down on me.

The first time it happened, the experience was so real and consuming it took awhile before I realized I was having a food reaction. That put things in perspective, and I made myself go outside for a walk, where I could begin analyzing my reaction rather than just getting lost in it.

Testing, Testing…

Over the next few weeks I tested my reaction several times, using an ABAB time series:

  • Organic raw dehydrated Macadamias: fine!;
  • Non-organic supermarket Macadamias in a tin: feeling of mild inflammation in my digestive system, low energy and depression;
  • Recovery time;
  • Repeat~.

The more un-organic mac nuts I had, the worse the reactions was.

Depression as a Food Reaction

Depression is a primary food reaction Matthew experiences when he tries to reintroduce foods, only his effects last longer (24-48 hours compared to my 4-6) and are more severe.

Even now that we know that this is a reaction he is likely to have, we still get bowled over by his feelings of absolute futility.

ABABWhen he’s in it, the reaction is so strong and deep, he loses the ability to remember that the reaction is caused by food.

That is a dangerous time.

The last time it happened, his feelings led him to question whether he even wanted to be here anymore.

It reminds me of the scene in Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince, when Professor Dumbledore consumes the Drink of Despair, a potion that causes him to re-live all his worst memories and fears. Matthew gets like that.

His despair results in very negative (short-term) attitudes about the severity of the restrictions he lives with on a low-FODMAP version of the AIP and a sense of hopelessness about the slow progress he is making, among other things.

This often results in a impulsive decision to reintroduce a bunch of other non-compliant comfort foods, because nothing matters anyway.

This unintended cascading reintroduction of non-AIP foods occurred for Matthew a year ago, after 3 months on the AIP, though we didn’t fully understand the phenomenon at the time. Once he recovered his ability to think clearly and got back on track, it took months to recover the progress he had made before that first derailed reintroduction experiment.

During an attempt at reintroduction, we now know that I have to be present and available to remind Matthew that he is having a food reaction, and that it is not a good time to make the decision to abandon his 15-month commitment to the AIP.

When he’s deep in despair, he’s not appreciative of my ministrations. But after, when he is able to look back and comprehend what just happened, he is.

So, We’re Careful With Reintroductions

We don’t do a lot of reintroduction experiments.

So far, Matthew has successfully reintroduced coffee and organic full-fat yogurt. They don’t cause a depression reaction, but he is only 70% confident that he actually tolerates them, so he’s still experimenting (ABAB~).



Chocolate & Mac Nuts? Not good. No matter how organic.

These observations have led me to reflect on the potential relationship between food and mental health issues in the general population.

People who are on a strict, clean dietary protocol are able to directly track the effects of reintroduced foods, but those who are consuming potentially problematic foods (or food additives or chemicals) all the time aren’t able to tease out the impacts of particular triggers on their well-being, including on their mental health.

Food & Mental Health

It is now widely accepted that gut health=mental health.

I experienced an alleviation of my decades-long battle with depression and anxiety after 6 months of paleo eating. Since then, I’ve surmised that perhaps gut health=psyche health, too.

What if certain foods (or fungicides, pesticides, or other chemicals) are also directly contributing to mental health problems? How would people know?

Only by adhering to a strict, clean dietary protocol for a significant period of time and then reintroducing foods (or additives or chemicals) to test their reactions.

Use of antidepressants are increasing all the time. More than 10% of Americans are now using them in an attempt to manage their depression. This number increases to 23% for women in their 40s & 50s (also the age group with the highest prevalence of autoimmune).

More research into the phenomenon of depression as a food (or chemical) reaction is warranted.

15 thoughts on “Depression as a Food Reaction

  1. I understand and know how much our daily food decisions have great influence over practically all our perceptions and interactions with our world. Like many others, I’ve had a lot of changes in my life that have affected both my mental and physical health. So far down that I can’t and won’t look up. I embraced and thrived on a Paleo/Primal diet. Grain, low quality meat and dairy and horrendous Monsanto’ed produce was killing me. Always ate those things because they are so available. My health and energy were awful and a warning from my Doc that I needed to shake it up in whatever way I would stay with it. I lost a lot of weight, got lab tests going in the right direction and saw my Doc smile for the first time in 2 years.

    Most aspects of my life are positive most of the time. When I crave grains and ice cream, or eat in “popular” restaurant chains, I DO pay the consequences in disturbed digestion and depression and extreme pessimism that is severe and as long as I keep drowning myself in lousy foods. I know better! But, but, but….. And for my optimum mental and physical health, I need to be 100% Paleo. Daily exercise and not a morsel of the foods that I’m sensitive to (which is why I crave them) The same goes for ditching the plastics and cleaning products for personal use or home cleaning. I think we both know what we have to do and having support is the way to keep at it. Bless you.

  2. Thankyou for this post.

    I have a ton of mental health issues, and have noticed a definite improvement by eating AIP. I also noticed that eating plenty of fermented foods (for the probiotics) makes a difference as well.
    I have not tried reintroducing anything yet though.

  3. Reblogged this on salixisme and commented:
    An interesting post by Petra8paleo about mental health and how it can be affected by diet. It specifically deals with reintroductions to the AIP diet and how they can affect depression.

  4. Love this post, Petra. And, I’m pleased that ORGANIC macadamias are back on your ‘approved’ list. I’ll have them waiting for you when you come to visit. Sans chocolate.

    Gluten affects my mood in a massive way, so I can sympathise with Matthew’s experiences. I completely understand that such reactions lead to a fear of reintroducing foods so as not to initiate unnecessary symptoms. And, the worst thing about it is that when you are in this state, you are unable to rationally assess what has caused this reaction in the first place. It’s a vicious circle.

    There must be an awfully large number of people in the world feeling decidedly average, with no idea that what they eat is preventing them from experiencing health.

    • We’ve come to accept that ‘decidedly average’ is normal, but I now believe we are meant to feel so much more vital than that. And thanks for the offer of the macadamias~! I’d love to take you up on that one day.

  5. This post resonates with me. My husband has recently changed his diet due to health reasons and the difference has been amazing. For the good. This change is good for me too. We have both cut out rice, potato and wheat. I am tending to be flexible to finish the pantry of leftovers but the transformation of what we eat is huge. To feel better we do need to change what we eat. To observe ourselves and what works and what doesn’t is so important. We are all different and react differently to certain foods. Observation is key. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Thanks for this post. I love your blog! I’ve been following AIP for PsA for a few months now and trying to encourage my husband to move in a generally paleo-ish direction, to no avail so far. He’s long-term depressed, and I am convinced that changing his diet would help his recovery. It’s so frustrating that he doesn’t even feel able to try 😦

    • I was paleo for a couple of years before Matthew decided to be ready to try the AIP, and during that time he would get pretty hostile to the suggestion that he might join me. Likewise, one of my kids who was experiencing extreme depression & anxiety decided to go for antidepressants rather than diet change, but after experiencing the side effects from those, stopped taking them & is now ‘paleo-ish’ plus taking a good quality probiotic. The depression is lifting. Sometimes all you can do is take really good care of yourself and let everyone around see the results.

      • Exactly- well put. You must keep going forward positively, and hope others will join in. But pressure doesn’t generally work. Be an example :). Thanks for your excellent guidance and recipes!

  7. Outstanding post Petra! Hits close to home as I’ve experienced similar consequences as the result of reintroducing foods. I also have found that while I have been successful in a few reintroductions, some of them are “dose dependent”… meaning I can tolerate some things only in small amounts and only occasionally. Likewise, I can consume some foods alone, but not in combination with others that I have reintroduced. It makes for quite the puzzle when trying to figure it all out. I, too, am plagued with depression and anxiety issues as the result of eating certain foods. Unfortunately physicians are happy to diagnose the problems as solely a mental health issue and dole out an RX for the quick fix. I’ve learned the hard way, however, that drugs often create symptoms of their own, which, in my case, were worse than the symptoms the drugs were being used to treat in the first place. When I mention diet intervention to my doctors, their eyes glaze over and I can tell they no longer take me seriously. Sadly, I’ve had to become my own health advocate (no good functional medicine docs where I live). I know now that food can and sometimes does cause an organic response that produces changes in brain chemistry and in turn psychological symptoms. The blessing is there are people like you out there in “internet land” that give me solid information and hope! Many thanks to you and please keep sharing your insights! PS. You both look wonderful in the picture above!!

  8. Thank you so much for this post and for sharing Matthew’s struggles, as they mirror my own. Petal, I empathize about your husband as mine is the same. He is so used to his depression and negativity he can’t even see it. However, it has improved since I’ve gone AIP because I do all the cooking and eating out gives him a massive migraine from additives. He still insists on eating bread, etc., but I hope one day he will give that up, too. I am experimenting with cassava flour and hope to produce a paleo “bread” that he will enjoy. Thanks, everyone for sharing. The support keeps me from throwing in the towel. I am literally the only person I know who follows this protocol, despite the fact that my entire family would benefit…(They prefer Prozac. Really.)

  9. Love this post! Thanks for information. I can also say that food can sometimes make me more depressed as well. I am following a diet prescribed by my holistic doctor and I ate sushi one day- and 2 days laters mass pain ( I didn’t know sushi was a no-no bc of all the bacteria- I was not thinking) but it inflamed my gut wiping out all the serotonin I had build up in there and I was depressed for a while- besides the fact that I was passed I did that to myself. But the depression I couldn’t shake for a while until my gut healed and I could restore the serotonin in my gut.

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