This blog is in 2 parts.
Statistically 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental illness each year . 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, preventing people from seeking help and isolating themselves further. There is still a stigma, but I like to think that’s improving, hence writing about my story in this blog. Really, mental illness is a common human condition. Developing mental illness doesn’t mean you are weak, quite the contrary.
Mental health and stress/burn out- two of my key specialisms as a registered nutritionist
It is an area that I have chosen to specialise in (along with all things brain, hormone and gut-related) because I myself have had more than my fair share of mental health issues (which run heavily in my family). And now I’m better, it’s extremely meaningful for me to help others with debilitating issues such as depression, anxiety, OCD, bipolar, PMDD and burnout. As well as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue, hormonal issues, plus neurodivergent traits found in ADHD and autism. I myself have ADHD, which unfortunately was not diagnosed when I was a child.
It’s given me both insight and a very large understanding of how to help people. It just turns out the mental health issues I have had are a bit rarer- PMDD (severe PMS-premenstrual syndrome) and postpartum psychosis (the latter two being much more common in those with bipolar, such as myself). 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 from conditions like this right now as I have been there. It can be truly horrible, but I have come out the other side, and you can too.
I was very healthy as a young 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. I believe some of this stress set me up to have a dysregulated nervous system, as your teen years are such an important time for brain development. PTSD can also bring on ADHD, although certain genes will predispose you to developing ADHD. And as with all health conditions it’s a mix of genes and environmental influences.
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)
As well as genetic propensity, we also know that children who have grown up with trauma and have had more ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) are more predisposed to chronic illness later in life . This is because chronic stress excessively activates the stress response system, causing wear and tear and a subsequent loss of balance to other body systems. This also leaves them with a dysregulated/ hypervigilant stress response in later life, making us more predisposed to mental illness . We see this in PTSD, ADHD, mental illness, and many hormonal and neurological conditions. But as the brain is a dynamic organ, the good news is that it can indeed be rewired.
Genetics and family history
I was also showing some ADHD behaviours in my youth, but the 80’s weren’t a time when such a thing was picked up. I had no time management skills (frequently late to secondary school), had issues around emotional regulation and huge distractibility. I would either go off on tangents, or hyperfocus to the point I would block out everything around me without ever realising, sometimes wandering around in my own world. Ultimately, I was developing a highly over-stimulated, at times slightly brain which predisposed me to the burnout and subsequent depression/anxiety I have experienced.
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.
The fact of the matter is I have a brain that can become very over-active. And I am much more genetically susceptible to hormonal fluctuations, chronic stress, ADHD, and bipolar disease- mania, depression and anxiety. 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 and 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 has suffered with clinical depression and was diagnosed with bipolar type 2.
There is controversy whether ADHD is genetic or environmental, but with all things it’s a combination, which is why nutrigenomics testing has made such as difference to myself and my clients. And is one of the lab tests I most highly recommend. ADHD can be a superpower – if you can harness the benefit. So, I also use targeted nutrition and supplements on clients with ADHD to downregulate the gene expression (through stress and other environmental triggers) which can lead to the associated poor concentration and hyperactivity. But it was not a ‘disorder’ which was well understood in the 70’s and 80’s.
Hormones and me
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 appear, and the clouds would lift. It got even worse in my 20s and 30s. It’s now known that ADHD and PMDD often co-exists.
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. I now look back and realise that I also had oestrogen dominance, which isn’t uncommon in puberty, but mine was severe- exceptionally heavy periods (with massive clots) that were only every 3 – 6 months.
PMS ‘on steroids’- Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)
It took decades to be diagnosed with PMDD (doctors just weren’t interested ☹) but I had the symptoms from the outset. 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 still haven’t heard of it, even my gynaecologist last year wasn’t familiar with 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 used to ruin 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 . Women with other mental health issues such as anxiety disorders, or with ADHD and/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.
Unfortunately, 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.
Links with diet
Looking back, I also 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 and 80’s diet of beige food, too much sugar and the wrong kind of carbs and fats. My gut wasn’t happy - I eventually developed IBS (from gluten sensitivity) and my blood sugar was definitely oscillating like crazy. But I didn’t put two and 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 those days, there wasn’t the awareness there is now regarding the link between FOOD and MOOD, or the link between the gut microbiome and the brain.
Interest in nutrition starts after weight gain and PCOS
It was actually in my 20’s - when my weight started to balloon and I couldn’t shift any pounds for the life of me, that my burgeoning interest in nutrition began. Such was my desperation to receive answers, I started studying a degree in nutrition in my late 20s, because having been slim all my life, it made me feel pretty miserable, suddenly becoming a size 16. It turns out a lot of it was inflammation and water retention, I also had insulin resistance, hormone imbalance (oestrogen dominance and raised DHEA from stress) and food intolerances. And studying to be a registered nutritionist, helped me work out and solve my health problems. Eventually losing the excess weight effortlessly.
Dissertation on premenstrual syndrome in 2006
And in my last year of my BSc Hons degree in nutrition, now in my early 30’s, I chose to carry out my dissertation on the topic of PMS. As unfortunately, PMDD was still blighting my life. 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 old journey. And unfortunately, my mental health was about to get much worse.
Read Part 2 here.
2. K Petruccelli, J Davis , T Berman. 2019. Adverse childhood experiences and associated health outcomes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31454589/
3. Young EA, Korszun A. The hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis in mood disorders. Endocrinol Metab Clin North Am. 2002 Mar;31(1):63-78. [PubMed]
4. Halbreich U. The etiology, biology, and evolving pathology of premenstrual syndromes. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2003 Aug;28 Suppl 3:55-99. [PubMed]
If you have questions about any medical matter, consult your doctor or other professional healthcare provider without delay.
If you think you are experiencing a serious mental health condition, seek immediate medical attention from a doctor or other professional healthcare provider.
For more information on the link between chronic stress and mental health, click here to read my blog on the irrefutable link between chronic stress and ill-health.