It has been widely documented that many survivors of domestic violence struggle with the life-altering side effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even after escaping the relationship. In many ways, it feels as though the abuser still has power over the survivor, inflicting pain and suffering long after they are gone. The survivor is left with what the central nervous system simply can’t forget: the trauma of fight-or-flight, flashbacks/nightmares of the cruelty and manipulation they endured, hypervigilance, etc. It’s as if triggering moments after the abuse causes the body to feel the exact emotions it felt in the abuse. Perception becomes reality, even if the person is safe.
When looking at how to recover and heal from PTSD, it can feel overwhelming when many say there is no cure for it other than maintaining the symptoms. Treatments such as medication and therapy are often the main point of reference for those living with PTSD, but one treatment that is widely ignored by doctors correlates with what we put in our mouths.
Food has the power to significantly improve or hinder your mental health.
In my post-trauma, I tirelessly searched for answers. On top of the mental battles I was facing, my body was in constant pain. Mental health issues can cause symptoms physically, and chronic pain results. I was exhausted most days, my muscles were not healing properly, and my body was almost glitching as much as my mind was. I exercised, but it was almost counterproductive. I did not respond well to medication (although many do great on it). It caused suicidal thoughts in my case. Therapy was fantastic for me, but I needed more.
My husband and I started researching. I have always turned to holistic health due to my parents and brother dying from prescription drug abuse. I use medication as needed, but I take a lot of vitamins and supplements. As I dug deeper into that, I kept coming across a silent killer that is linked to many ailments of the body. Something that not only hurts our physical health but can cause mental health issues and has links to PTSD.
The more research we did, the more we saw inflammation could be a huge detriment to my healing. So, we began to investigate how to stop inflammation, and every article came back to nutrition. Some foods are more prone to cause inflammation, and I was eating every single one of them. As scary as it sounds to overhaul your entire diet that you have been accustomed to since childhood, it felt even scarier to live the rest of my life like this. So, both my husband and I took the plunge and switched to a plant-based diet.
I cannot begin to express how my entire life changed in the best possible way. Within weeks, I could feel a huge difference in my chronic pain. My legs and neck used to throb daily, and suddenly it was gone. My mental triggers lessened, my mood swings stabilized, my periods got better, my hormones relaxed, and my energy levels increased. The scale that would not budge no matter how much exercise I did started to move, and I eventually lost over 30 pounds. I also added more vitamins and supplements to my arsenal that aided in brain and body activity. All the battles that I was fighting due to PTSD were rapidly diminishing, and it was due to less inflammation in my body. It felt incredible.
Inflammation in the bloodstream has been stated by the medical world to correlate with many chronic diseases of the body but also mental conditions such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD (Godos et al., 2020). Any tissue in our body is prone to inflammation as well, including our brains. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in the brain works to alarm our immune systems to any perceived threats, sending out inflammatory proteins called cytokines, and when trauma occurs consistently, our HPA and immune systems become run down and do not work properly. Because of that, individuals with mental conditions such as PTSD have raised levels of pro-inflammatory markers. (Michopoulos et al., 2017)
We have always heard that constant stress is also horrible for the body and its systems, and one way that is proven is through changes in the immune system due to inflammation. Survivors of domestic violence have often lived through years of daily stress and fight-or-flight responses. It is easy to conclude then that most would have tremendous amounts of inflammation in their bodies because of this. Prolonged states of inflammation can affect the way our brains react cognitively and behaviorally, including memory functions, our ability to pay attention, decision-making, hypervigilance, our ability to perceive danger, and many other functions. (Hori & Kim, 2019).
Our gut health also plays a pivotal role in mental conditions and inflammation. When the gut is functioning properly, studies have shown a reduction of symptoms of depression, stress, and anxiety due to prebiotics and probiotics being present (Bersani et al., 2020). The brain suffers when the gut can’t break down food properly as well, and eating foods that cause inflammatory responses in our gut eventually makes its way to the brain (Home Base, 2020).
Inflammatory vs Anti-inflammatory Food
With all this information, which foods are more likely to cause inflammation? Taking a food-allergy blood panel will give you the most personal answer if you happen to be allergic to a certain type of food because your body releases histamine to fight what it’s allergic to, creating inflammation. Generally speaking, the foods that have been shown to cause the most inflammatory properties are animal meats and products, hydrogenated oils, and processed foods that include many chemicals and preservatives (PTSD Association of Canada, 2021). Research also shows that chronic ailments like rheumatoid arthritis are flared up by meat and dairy products (Septak, 2021). Eating these foods in moderation or eliminating them altogether has proven to significantly help.
On the flip side, studies show that fighting inflammation is possible with a plant-based diet that is full of fruits, vegetables, and fiber. These foods can also battle chronic pain, especially ones such as turmeric, soy, caffeine, and grapes. (Septak, 2021). Plant foods also play a vital role in keeping the gut healthy and working properly, as well as keeping stress hormones in balance (Godos et al., 2020). Vitamins and supplements are another way to get many of the essential minerals and whole foods that fight inflammation but look for ones that are not full of fillers and preservatives.
Many may look at plant-based diets as a fad, but it is a doable lifestyle that can work wonders. I still eat meat periodically, mostly during celebrations like birthdays or anniversaries. I try to avoid dairy as much as possible, but it’s not a perfect science. My entire body can tell when I consume these foods, so it makes it easier to avoid them. It’s simply not worth what I feel after.
You don’t have to follow strict rules. It’s your journey and your body! Find those things that make you feel inflamed and try your best to have them in moderation unless you are allergic and should avoid them altogether. I personally am not a huge fan of larger amounts of vegan cheese, so sometimes, I eat the real stuff. It’s not about perfection, and the more you do it, the easier it gets.
You can take control of your mental and physical health. You deserve to live your best life, and the abuse you endured does not have to be a life sentence.
Bersani, F. S., Mellon, S. H., Lindqvist, D., Kang, J. I., Rampersaud, R., Somvanshi, P. R., Doyle, F. J., Hammamieh, R., Jett, M., Yehuda, R., Marmar, C. R., & Wolkowitz, O. M. (2020). Novel Pharmacological Targets for Combat PTSD—Metabolism, Inflammation, The Gut Microbiome, and Mitochondrial Dysfunction. Military Medicine, 185(Supplement_1), 311–318. https://doi.org/10.1093/milmed/usz260
Godos, J., Currenti, W., Angelino, D., Mena, P., Castellano, S., Caraci, F., Galvano, F., et al. (2020). Diet and Mental Health: Review of the Recent Updates on Molecular Mechanisms. Antioxidants, 9(4), 346. MDPI AG. http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/antiox9040346
Home Base. (2020, June 16). PTSD awareness month: why diet and nutrition really matter. Home Base: Veteran and Family Care. https://homebase.org/news/ptsd-awareness-month-why-diet-and-nutrition-really-matter/
Hori, H. and Kim, Y. (2019), Inflammation and post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychiatry Clin. Neurosci., 73: 143-153. https://doi.org/10.1111/pcn.12820
Septak, M. J. (2021) Healing traumatic pain with a plant-based diet. Be Your Healthiest. https://www.assuaged.com/news/healing-traumatic-pain-with-a-plant-based-diet
Michopoulos, V., Powers, A., Gillespie, C. et al. (2017) Inflammation in fear- and anxiety-based disorders: PTSD, GAD, and beyond. Neuropsychopharmacol 42, 254–270 https://doi.org/10.1038/npp.2016.146
PTSD Association of Canada. (2021). Neuro-nutrition for a healthier brain. PTSD Association of Canada. http://www.ptsdassociation.com/nutritional