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My Recovery from Mental Illness and Post-Viral Fatigue (Part 1 of 2)

Updated: Apr 21

This blog is in 2 parts.

Statistically 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental illness each year [1]. If you have experienced a mental health problem yourself, you will be familiar with how distressing and scary it can be. It can be perceived as a sign of weakness in our society, which can be further reinforced by unhelpful stereotypes, and stop people from seeking help, isolating themselves further. There is still a stigma, but I like to think that’s improving, hence writing this blog. Really, mental illness is a common human condition.

Mental Health and Brain Health - my Specialisms as a Nutritionist

It is an area that I have chosen to specialise in (along with all things brain- related:- neuroendocrine/hormones/metabolism/pain) because I myself have had more than my fair share. And it’s extremely meaningful for me to now help others with depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD and so on, plus the mental health disorders I have experienced. It’s given me both insight and a very large understanding of how to treat mental illness. It just turns out the ones I have had are a bit rarer- bipolar, PMDD (severe PMS-premenstrual syndrome) and postpartum psychosis (the latter two being much more common in those with bipolar). So, I’d like to tell you more about them and my experiences, and ultimately my recovery.

And I want to say that my heart goes out to you if you are suffering right now as I have been there. It can be truly horrible but I have come out the other side and you can too.

Some background

I was a very healthy child, barely ever ill. Basically, I had a charmed childhood, in the green (leafier- than you think) suburbs of Croydon and a loving relationship with my parents and my sweet younger sister (above).

But unfortunately like many families – in our teen years, there was a lot of trauma, stress and uncertainty with a divorce and the ensuing waves of chaos and destruction it brought. Eventually we moved in with my mum’s new partner and kids and that was another extremely turbulent time. My dad suffered a severe nervous breakdown and was hospitalised for months. He still suffers from clinical depression.

Hormones and me

Did you know women are much more at risk of mental health disorders at times of hormonal flux, such as prior to menstruation, after childbirth and during perimenopause? The hormonal changes also exacerbate many other chronic conditions. The dramatic hormonal fluctuations can have a significant impact on the brain and neuroendocrine system which then adversely impacts many systems in the body as a result.

At 13, my periods started and little did I know that would be the start of my experience with mental illness. Within a few menstrual cycles, I started experiencing a feeling of intense blackness for a few days before my period EVERY MONTH. I would socially withdraw, be weepy, emotionally reactive and down-right depressed with no joy in my brain- it felt like a black hole. But then my period would come and the clouds would lift. It got even worse in my 20s and 30s.

PMS ‘on steroids’- Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)

PMDD is a much more severe form of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) affecting 8% of females and it can be so bad it has a debilitating effect on a sufferer’s life, having a severe impact on their mental health for up to 2 weeks of the month. I know this all too well. More alarmingly, some doctors haven’t heard of it.

Occurring in the luteal phase of your menstrual cycle which is the time after ovulation until your period, mine typically lasted 10 days before and the first 2 days of my period. So, it literally ruined about a third of my life.

It is believed that PMDD isn’t actually the result of a hormone imbalance as such but a hypersensitivity in the brain to hormone fluctuations. These changes have effects on our neurotransmitters like serotonin, making our brains more vulnerable to mental illness [2]. I will be writing a blog soon on the difference between PMS and PMDD, which will also discuss the treatment options, symptoms and some of the underlying causes and about my dissertation on PMS in 2006.

Women with other mental health issues such as anxiety disorders, or with ADHD, or bipolar - like me, are much more prone to PMDD. Having experienced PMDD for so many decades, plus all my research and my extensive clinical experience, I can confidently tell you there is so much functional medicine can offer. Each case is different and it’s my job to unravel the puzzle.

Conventional medicine doesn’t always connect up the dots like functional medicine can, and when you have multiple health issues you can end up with different consultants with different specialities, who don’t have the understanding and knowledge always required to get to the bottom of your problems. Our systems work in harmony, they are not independent entities.

Dissertation on premenstrual syndrome in 2006

Such was my desperation to receive some answers, I started studying a degree in nutrition in my late 20s and in 2006 carried out my dissertation in the final year on PMS. I thought if no one could help me, I needed to help myself and find answers, that is what eventually happened, but it was a long journey.

I have now overcome PMDD which has made a massive difference to my quality of life quality. Part of my recovery was having nutrigenomic testing (looking at your genes), finding out what pathways weren’t working properly (turns out amongst other things that I don’t methylate very well) and then addressing them with personalised supplements and nutraceuticals - something I also offer my patients, where required.

Links with diet

Looking back, I wish someone had told my preteen and teenage self that I needed to eat in a different way as I subsisted on a 70’s diet of beige food, too much sugar and the wrong kind of carbs. My gut wasn’t happy - I eventually developed IBS and my blood sugar was definitely oscillating like crazy. But I didn’t put two + two together, totally unaware that the sudden dips in mood, concentration and intense irritability throughout the day were directly linked to my diet. But in the 70s, there wasn’t the awareness there is now regarding the link between FOOD and MOOD and the link between the gut microbiome and the brain. In my 20’s I put on a lot of weight that I struggled to lose and developed PCOS, which I will talk about in a future blog.

It certainly didn’t help that on top of all of that, hormone sensitivity and propensity to mental illness (in my case - bipolar) are very much in my genes.

Genetics and family history

The fact of the matter is I have a brain that is much, much, more genetically susceptible to hormonal fluctuations and chronic stress. Tragically, my gran (my father’s mother) died from suicide due to schizophrenia when I was very little. My poor father and his sister spent much of their childhood living with aunts & uncles as she was often in hospital. And in the post-partum period, his mother’s illness would get so much worse.

My dad’s sister lives with severe schizoaffective disorder (it’s like bipolar but with more psychotic features) and has spent most of her life in and out of mental hospitals and has a daily carer. My dad suffers with clinical depression and even received ECT treatment in the 90’s.

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)