Interview with Joan
This is an interview with Joan Ifland regarding her personal struggle. She is a mother, patient, and author of Processed Food Addiction: Foundations, Assessment, and Recovery. She is also the creator of Food Addiction Reset. Check out her website here.
Q: What health conditions did you struggle with in the past? Do you still struggle with any of these conditions now? Anyone in the family with similar conditions?
A: Before I got into recovery from processed foods, I had a lot of health problems: constant sinus issues, fatigue, cravings. I was a yo-yo dieter, a smoker. I had a lot of raging and violent mood swings, as well as depression. And then I got off of sugars and flours in 1996. Afterward, the raging stopped and my depression got better. My allergies cleared up and I was no longer overweight. It was such an epiphany that I adopted this way of life off junk food as my career.
For 8 years, I had a stable personality and lots of energy. I even wrote a book. Then in 2004, I went back to school for my Ph.D., and right at that time I was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy. For 22 months, I went through sheer hell. There were big voices in my head and I could not connect to the outer world because these voices talked loudly and insistently. You cannot study under those circumstances. I did not know where I was and I would not be able to talk to people because I was overwhelmed by these voices. My daughter, who is an MD, felt that it was schizophrenia. I was hospitalized four times in those 22 months. Once I was diagnosed, I went to the research literature...because I was in an interdisciplinary nutrition Ph.D. program. I wondered if there was a “food plan” for epilepsy, and sure enough there was a review article that advocated for a ketogenic diet. I adopted an 80% fat, 10% carbs, and 10% protein diet for 2 and a half months. The voices stopped within a few days. You can see it in my school work--I was doing the minimum of 11 credits in my first semester at school, and the next semester I was doing 22 credits. However, for some reason my liver may have been sensitive, o after 2.5 months, I stopped but by then I knew if the voices came back I could just go into the grocery store and get an avocado and carton of heavy whipping cream. That was the end of it, I was finally able to get the voices to stop but it was 22 months of not knowing who I was, not knowing where I put down my purse.
In that period, I could follow the food plan because I was already equipped with the skill set to follow a food plan. I don’t understand how people in the middle of schizophrenia with no food-management skills could follow such a food plan. How do you train people who are compromised to do this, with consistency? I felt very lucky because I already had the skills.
I wish every person struggling with schizophrenia knew the power of this diet. My mother had schizophrenia heavily medicated in a nursing home. So this is really near and dear to my heart. I believe if I had been able to feed my mother with this approach, she would have come out of it.
Q: Were you officially diagnosed with schizophrenia?
A; No, I was only ever diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy. I presume there was only hyperactivity in the temporal lobe. I did experience symptoms of hearing voices in my head but it went away while on this diet.
Q: Did you ever face pushback from physicians?
A: It is sad that the ketogenic diet is so polarizing in the medical community. I mentioned it to my neurologist, and he said “I would never prescribe sticks of butter to my patients!” But no, you can really eat cool, satisfying foods...and there is evidence that high fat foods release endocannabinoids in the brain.
Q: What were your symptom presentations like, and how old were you at this time?
A: I was 52 - the same age that my mother started acting bizarrely. I had just started a PhD program, and it was a really stressful and chaotic environment. I think that stress is a factor in why I became ill with epilepsy.It got much worse in the first 6 months. Sometimes it would feel like there were thousands of voices, like a whole convention of people. Sometimes it was just God. God and I would have these incredible long conversations about the nature of the world. Sometimes there would be voices from other universes. And then, sometimes I would feel like I was talking to someone I knew-- like telepathy. Finally, one night I was talking to my husband in my head and he was standing in front of me. I asked him to pick something up and he didn’t. That is when I realized, everything was in my head and that is when I started trying to ignore the voices. I would play spiritual music, which kept the voices away because they didn’t like “good things”. It was this incredibly fierce commitment of thought control, and eventually I was able to go through long periods without voices in my head. I had the last seizure in ‘06, so it has been more than 10 years now that I have been symptom-free.
Q: What made these voices “malicious”?
A: Simply that they were there. I would ask them to leave, and they wouldn’t. Or sometimes, they would tell me to go places. They told me to go somewhere near the medical center in Houston, and I called a taxi and was walking around and around. I was walking in the street, and that was one of the times that I was actually picked up by the police. I had no idea where I put my purse down, I was cursing at the police.
Q: What factors, genetic and environmental, do you think contributed to the development of temporal lobe epilepsy?
A: I do think there is a genetic component because I developed my condition at the same exact age my mom developed schizophrenia. Stress, as well. My mom was going through a divorce during that time, and was emigrating from Europe. So we both had, at the same age, an episode of pretty severe stress. Mine was starting my Ph.D. program.
From ‘84-’96, I couldn’t work. I graduated from Stanford Business School but was ultimately a housewife for a while. My allergies were really bad and my kids needed additional attention. In ‘96, I got off of sugars and flours. So between ‘96 and ‘04, when I was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy, I was in recovery. I was making up for lost time because processed food makes people short-tempered and makes it hard to focus. Off the sugars and flours, I could be a better mother, pay attention, be cheerful, and optimistic. For me the worst manifestation of processed food ingestion was my raging and unstable mood. For example, the gardener might say “we need to increase the fees”. I would just fly off the handle, and it was completely irrational. There were no cues. In other words, I was not always able to control my emotions. The next minute, the plumber might be 15 minutes late and I would have a total meltdown. It was so random and it was not due to the situation, more so my unstable blood glucose. We now even know that 80% of criminal offenders have hypoglycemia..so the unstable blood glucose was a big factor. Eating cleaner foods stabilized my mood, fixed my sinuses, fatigue, depression, anxiety, brain fog, allergies, headaches, and this terrible irritability. This is a pretty common profile for people who are addicted to processed food. I remember it only took 4 days for the brain fog and fatigue to stop.
I am so grateful that I had eight years between getting off the sugars and flours, and starting my temporal lobe epilepsy episodes. In the eight years, I developed a keen appreciation for the power of food to influence behavior, and I also developed food-management skills. The key to any food plan is to eliminate processed foods -- whether you do paleo, keto, low-carb, etc.
Q: What advice do you have to give structure to someone's food plan?
A: It is a monumental task, because of the addiction. If you just hand a food plan to somebody, it is like telling someone with cocaine addiction to just stop using cocaine. No, there are millions of neurons to reprogram in the frontal lobe. We now know that mirror neurons play a key role in addiction. What I have learned over the years of searching for a reliable method to help people get control of their food is that you can put them in a group, and they can copy successful people. Mirror neurons are reflexive and copy their environment; no thinking or analyzing, just copying. The idea is to get people around others who are eating clean, thinking positive thoughts. In an addictive person, the limbic system is firing too fast and strong, which overwhelms rational thought. You need to train that brain to avoid those triggers and thoughts. It is a process. You get more days of abstinence, fewer days of lapsing, and you build these reconditioned neural networks in the brain. Now when you look at processed food, you may think, “that will make me sick” whereas when you were addicted you may think, “I need to have that”.
Q: How long does this “reprogramming” process take?
A: It depends on a number of severity factors. One is at what age did the addiction start? The younger it starts, the more neurons need to be reprogrammed. Another is the number of substances that are being used. It may be just sugar, but most processed foods have 7-8 addictive substances in them which makes it much harder to stop. Sugar has a different effect than gluten, which has a different effect from added salts, and food additives, and caffeine. A lot of the times, you are using these substances in combination which over activates the limbic system. There are also lots of triggering in the environment, the substances are readily available and very cheap, so it can be very hard to stop. I would say it may be about five years before you get to a period of abstinence. It is tough to get people off the “dieting” model of just eating less. The same people who ran the tobacco/smoking industry took over the processed food industry in the ’80s, and they applied the addiction business model. We got caught in that net, and this idea that food is addictive is not generally accepted yet. People talk to me, and then go talk to their health professionals, who have differing views.
Q: How did you become interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in food addiction?
A: I got off sugars in flours back in ‘96 simply to lose weight. However, because of the enormous impact, this had on my personality, I became highly interested in the role of processed food addiction and wanted to help others--particularly, children. I was the child of someone who used lots of caffeine and sugar, and I had a terrible temper. It was a traumatizing household. So I wrote my book but couldn’t find a publisher, so I self-published. And then one day, I was being interviewed for one of those big New York morning talk shows. I had survived all these producer interviews and was ready to fly to New York, when the last producer told me they can’t go forward with this interview because I did not have a degree in my field. Even though I had this beautiful Stanford MBA, I told myself I will go get a degree. If that is standing between me and reaching people, then I will go get it.
Q: Describe a typical day before you were off sugars and flours, as well as a typical day now after this whole journey.
A: Before, I slept a lot. Processed foods limit functioning. I would sleep all night, wake up tired, take a nap. I would take long walks, take care of the household, do groceries, pick up my kids. It was a low-functioning existence because of the fatigue and brain fog.Now, I love what I do and I work all the time. I wake up with a whole list of ideas to move forward with. I wrote a textbook, built websites and programs, and I am training people to run this Food Addiction Reset community. Constantly innovating, building, testing.
And now, the raging is gone. It takes a lot to get me mad, and I have routines to get me away from feeling anxious or depressed. For two hours a day, I run a peer support group. So for two hours a day, I am training my brain to stay calm and my mirror neurons are also adapting. Talking to people everyday who want to be positive, calm, and optimistic is so important for recovering.
Q: What would you tell your former self?
A: I wish she knew that this is not your fault. You did not ask for this condition, or cause them. Addiction has a life of its own, it is conditioned neurons. It is a tough life, and I have so much compassion for you.