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Mental Health
|personal story

I'm A Dietitian With Bipolar II: My Journey To A Diagnosis + How Strategic Lifestyle Habits Help Me Manage Symptoms

Alexandra D'Elia, R.D., CDN, RDN
Integrative & Functional Dietitian
By Alexandra D'Elia, R.D., CDN, RDN
Integrative & Functional Dietitian
Alex is an Integrative and Functional Registered Dietitian and the Owner of Olox Nutrition.
Alexandra D'Elia photo
Image by mbg creative / Alexandra D'Elia
While some health issues are visible to the outside world, many people face chronic conditions that don't have externally visible signs or symptoms—also known as invisible illnesses. In mindbodygreen's new series, we're giving individuals with invisible illnesses a platform to share their personal experiences. Our hope is their stories will shed light on these conditions and offer solidarity to others facing similar situations.

Trigger warning: This article includes mentions of suicidal ideation.

Looking back, I now realize I spent most of my teens and early 20s grappling with debilitating symptoms I didn't understand or even acknowledge at the time. I didn't know it wasn't common behavior to watch five to six hours of TV a day, or chew ice constantly, or always feel uneasy. I was very volatile in my relationships (lots of sobbing and screaming).

My 20s were a blur of binge drinking, toxic relationships, and never seeming to be able to get my head above water. That decade changed me, at first for the worst and then for the better. But with most things that are painful and life-altering, that time period shaped who I am today...I just sometimes wish I had been a faster learner. 

I started to become aware of my bipolar II symptoms in my early 20s.

I was in a really bad place after my first stint in college. Through the entire process of trudging through school to get my degree, I was severely depressed—I had an idea of what that meant, and I knew I wasn't supposed to feel that way, but I wasn't really equipped to make the right choices to tackle it properly. So I went to my doctor (not a psychiatrist) and was put on my first antidepressant. This started a cycle of trying a drug, taking myself off abruptly because of side effects, and then deciding I needed to try another.

After graduating college, I was lonely, I had no real job prospects, and I was incredibly unhealthy both physically and mentally. 

Then one day, I had the realization: "You are the problem." I don't even know how I got there, but I remember it clear as day. I don't have a lot of memories of that stage of my life; it's almost like I wasn't actually present for a lot of years. But this I remember so vividly. It was the first time I acknowledged I was at the root of the chaos that always seemed to be swirling around me—the bad relationships, failed friendships, the constant flux, all of it. That was the first thing that jolted me and made me realize I needed to do some work.

My solution? Participate in something meaningful and start focusing on others. I came across an online application for AmeriCorps, a youth service organization, and in a couple of months, I headed off to Colorado and began 10 months of service projects.

Like most things in my life, I had a more visceral reaction than most people to the experience: I felt restricted, even though I'd signed up for it; I was constantly questioning things; and I generally had problematic responses to authority and rules.

Still, I made it through, and it ended up being one of the more defining times in my life. It was so interesting to be in a different part of the country, with people my age, and notice how different my behavior was compared to theirs. I discovered that the people I met didn't react to things as strongly as I did and could compartmentalize their emotions in a more healthy way. I also started to become aware of how people responded to my behavior. Seeing their faces contort in confusion or shock at my "passionate outburst" or over-the-top reactions made me realize something was off with me, but I still didn't have a name for it. 

I had no idea my lifestyle choices were causing such dramatic shifts in my moods and general well-being.

After AmeriCorps, I decided to pursue a degree in nutrition. I was more hopeful than I had actually ever been. Sure, I would experience big spurts of energy and productivity with frequent but short-lived lulls of depression. However, it was manageable, and, quite frankly, it was the best I had ever felt, so things were good for a while.

Then I met a boy. At that point, I placed so much of my self-worth on being loved by someone—so it was devastating when he acted in a way that showed he didn't and intoxicating when he showed he did. I was caught in an abuse cycle and wanted to fix him.

As a result, I started furiously reading and researching personality disorders, alcoholism, and bipolar to help me "understand" why my toxic boyfriend acted the way he did. One day, while reading Bipolar for Dummies, I thought, oh, this feels familiar. But it was just a passing thought.

The shear stress of the relationship was up-regulating my depression and hypomania and making me feel very unstable. To top it off, I wasn't eating well, I was drinking even more and basically just beating up my body. At the time, I had no idea my lifestyle choices were causing such dramatic shifts in my moods and general well-being.

Around that time, I experimented with some drugs, which set off a cascade of debilitating anxiety and hypomania. There was one particular instance when I spent days gasping with anxiety, trying to catch my breath—it was so intense, I could barely get through a day. That was the first time in my life that I thought, "I understand why a person wouldn't want to be alive anymore." I didn't believe I would take my life, but for the first time I understood not wanting to keep going. That was the day I reached out to a therapist.

My therapist confirmed my mental health speculations.

I went to my first therapy session when I was 27 years old, and it was such a relief to say the things I felt out loud. I actually told him in that first session that I thought I had bipolar. He told me we would see each other for a few sessions and talk about it, without focusing on diagnosis right away. About a month or two later, he shared that I had a lot of symptoms that were in line with bipolar II.

What did that mean exactly? While everyone experiences bipolar in their own unique way, for me, I would have episodes of depression several times a year—lasting from a couple of days to several weeks at a time. Sometimes I would experience hypomania after these episodes, and, honestly, those were the times I felt the most productive and creative. I was also very quick to fly into a rage or sob uncontrollably during those times, and I was generally more self-destructive with alcohol and men. The best way I can describe it is I desperately wanted to "feel something."    

Because I always sought help during a depressive swing, my PCPs defaulted to prescribing SSRIs. By the time I saw my therapist years later, I'd tried so many antidepressants, not realizing a lot of them had actually triggered manic symptoms and made me more unstable.

Changing my diet and lifestyle was a complete game-changer.

As a dietitian, I really started throwing myself into trying to manage symptoms with diet and lifestyle.

One of the first things that I did was I put myself on a multivitamin, to simply fill in gaps that I needed in my diet. I also started adding more supplements, like magnesium and fish oil—which are now staples in a lot of my protocols.

Then I did an elimination diet that really brought it down to basics. In just three weeks, the difference I felt was profound. The absence of symptoms—depression, anxiety, bloating, fatigue, constipation—made me realize how terrible I had felt for the majority of my life. After six months of consistently reducing processed foods, taking targeted supplements, and focusing on whole fresh food, I felt like a different person.

In my practice, I focus on brain and gut health. Over the past few years, I have learned so much more about the gut-brain connection, which I've carried into my own life and work with clients. We're continuing to explore the role of nutrients, the gut microbiome, functional foods, community, stress, etc., on how we function and relate to the world around us.

I want to empower others with this knowledge and arm them with tools that we simply didn't have until fairly recently. It can be overwhelming at first to realize you have so much influence over how you feel, but then it becomes very freeing—I just want to help people feel like themselves again.

What I want other people to understand about bipolar.

My day-to-day life is pretty much the same as anyone else's. Now that I understand and respect my diagnosis enough to do what I need to do for myself, I feel empowered. I used to feel a lot of shame about my bipolar symptoms—a lot of that came from not understanding what it was and why I reacted and felt so different from people around me. My symptoms often made me unlikable and difficult to relate to many people, and that was lonely. 

Knowing what I know now and understanding that bipolar is just one small part of me has allowed me to use my experience to help others, and all of this serves as the foundation for my company, Olox Nutrition

I think with any mental health issue, compassion is incredibly important. We're often quick to judge people for their behavior, but instead, it can be so helpful to just stop and consider what might be going on. If we see a behavior shift with someone in our lives, rather than take it personally, perhaps lead with empathy. This doesn't mean ignoring your boundaries; always protect yourself—but if there is room for a conversation, have it.

Alexandra D'Elia, R.D., CDN, RDN author page.
Alexandra D'Elia, R.D., CDN, RDN
Integrative & Functional Dietitian

Alex is an Integrative and Functional Registered Dietitian and the Owner of Olox Nutrition, a virtual nutrition coaching company that specializes in mind-body health and using food as medicine. Her personal experience with mental health made her realize just how essential food and lifestyle are in managing symptoms and increasing overall health and quality of life. Her 3-month nutrition coaching program, The Food & Mood Reboot, offers women lasting tools to improve energy, heal the gut, and nourish their brain so they can feel strong and capable in their bodies and minds. Get your free Mood-Food Guide 6 Easy Recipes here.