For some people, dairy is a diet staple. My husband, for instance, probably doesn’t go a day without it. There are governmental dietary recommendations calling it a major food group, and health food claims from warm, fuzzy cow ads promoting its friendliness as a food.
One of my most recent experiments has been to seriously take dairy out of my diet. I have noticed for my whole life the stuffy nose, swollen eyes, itchy skin, headache, brain fog, annoying cough, belly pain, reflux and reduced transit time whenever I consume dairy. As if this weren’t enough (and it wasn’t, because I still ate it!), I also have long suspected mood alterations, i.e.: startlingly severe depression, weeping, and lethargy related to my dairy consumption.
I had a chance to test out this theory by strictly avoiding dairy for the last 6 months, when some of my inflammation markers from recent blood tests kept coming back high in recent years, appearing like I’m still eating gluten, even though I’ve become sort of a pro at strict gluten avoidance, having had about 15 yrs worth of practice. Then I relaxed the dairy avoidance to have an anniversary dinner last Saturday night. One night. Not whole hog. Just sprinkles of feta on my salad, a little bit of parmesan on the pasta, a little bit of cream in the coffee. And what happened was quite startling.
The next day, I was exhausted. Felt like the worst hangover in over a decade. So tired I literally could not get up off the couch until after 3pm. And weepy and weird for the rest of the day; every tiny thing, or really nothing, basically sent me into tears or nearly so. I felt illogically lonely and depressed. It took about 36 hours to regain some sense of normalcy. I think about how familiar this experience has been my entire life, and how it fades away whenever I avoid dairy (I’ve already been avoiding gluten for a long time, and things did get better, but not completely. I just kept eating dairy and putting up with the random feelings of unwellness, vaguely aware of the probable cause.)
Psychiatrists who have discovered this dairy-mental health link are starting to write about it, and it’s kind of mind blowing. It makes me wonder how many of my clients who cannot get satisfying results from their anti-depressants may be having this reaction to dairy, or to gluten, or both. I have experienced it from both. It’s a stupefyingly random feeling of chronic and intense mood instability that seems without cause.
Having experienced this instability and the relief that dairy and gluten avoidance brings, I frequently think it could be a game-changer for many of my clients. It is so dramatic it defies description. Not many want to consider such a change. When it was first suggested to me in my 20s I was adamant. Give up bread and ice cream? Not a snowball’s chance in hell! I had to become ill, depressed, choking on my own phlegm, gasping for air, and trying to override fatigue to do my running workouts, before I started to seriously wonder what was going on.
I know it’s rough to first encounter the idea of dietary restrictions, but people do it every day. Diabetics do it. People with anaphylactic peanut and other allergies do it. HH the Dalai Lama has been quoted as saying he avoids milk because it doesn’t like him. Lactose intolerant people manage avoidance just f. There’s been plenty of press for decades about the lack of evidence for dairy as health food, and plenty of evidence of the dangers. More recently:
Psychiatrist Kelly Brogan’s take on diet and depression. And there are plenty of other psychiatrists taking notice of this phenomenon.
This is not a thing that is easy to do in the beginning, avoiding dairy and gluten. But if you try it (4 days to a week is probably sufficient to tell whether you feel different) and discover your mood and energy improve, it sure is a lot easier to work with the deprivation feelings than constant pervasive darkness of chronic depression and anxiety caused by gluten and dairy intolerance. The deprivation feelings are real, and can be easily worked with. And no, this is not a substitute for addressing trauma, but it can be the difference between being able to get up and go to work in the morning, and not. There’s so much more help and information out there now than when I was starting out.
Other bright spots in the journey that included times where I wandered around the kitchen bawling and hungry: I learned how to cook, and started to read food labels. Until then I had no idea how much chemical crap I had been ingesting. The gluten free prepared foods were so awful at that time, I was determined to have safe food that tasted good. I learned how to appreciate, and then developed a taste for, real honest-to-goodness food. Stuff we were meant to eat. Gardening grew out of that, and then an increased feeling of connection to the earth and concern for the care of it came even more into focus. I am a more whole person than I ever was, since learning I must avoid dairy and gluten.
It’s not that difficult a task when it feels this darn good.