Sugar, Stress, Poor Gut Health Trigger Anxiety: Interview with Sarah Wilson
Sarah Wilson is a New York Times bestselling author, Australian journalist, former host of MasterChef Australia, and founder of the I Quit Sugar books and program. The I Quit Sugar 8-week program became a movement that was completed by over 1.5 million people in over 130 countries around the world.
Wilson radiates health and wellness and glows from the covers of her internationally bestselling I Quit Sugar books. But her book First, We Make the Beast Beautiful chronicles her darker journey of living with anxiety disorders. We recently spoke to Wilson about the book and her experiences living with and ultimately embracing her anxiety.
Blue Zones: You’re so well known for founding the “I Quit Sugar” movement, but you tackle the heavier subject of anxiety and other mood disorders in First, We Make the Beast Beautiful.
Sarah Wilson: In many ways, the anxiety book came first. I set out to write it over 8 years ago because my anxiety was so bad. I had no perspective on it then—I had left my job and life [Wilson is the former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan Australia] and was living in an army shed in the forest to try to get a handle on things.
It was during this period that the sugar research happened, as I was researching on health and talking to scientists and experts around the world to find a solution for both my anxiety and my autoimmune disease. So the sugar piece is very much part of the whole journey. I healed both my endocrine disorder [Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune disease] and my sugar addiction and also learned to modulate and thrive with my anxiety at the same time.
BZ: You created waves when you shut down your hugely popular online community, IQuitSugar.com, last year. Tell us about this radical move.
SW: Yes, sure. My research grew into a book and then a program that became a growing digital business with 20 staff members. In March of 2018, I closed down the website and gave all the money to charity.
That’s not because I don’t believe in the lifestyle. The movement is still going, but my work is done. My role was to take the science and the meaty stuff that was out there to a mass audience—to busy people and to moms and dads who need the help. That hadn’t been done before. It’s hard to believe this now, but 8 years ago, I was considered fanatical when I talked about how bad sugar was. There are lots of people out there now that I’m handing the baton to.
BZ: But you wanted to move on to other things?
SW: It was part of my mental health strategy. I have to know when to move on. I have bipolar disorder. I thrive on new ideas and am at my best when I’m inventing and creating. It’s a bizarre thing to say, but I want to shift some of the negative language around the disorder. What I know is that I’m not built for maintaining businesses.
BZ: Besides stepping away from something, like a business, that causes you immense stress, what other ways do you cope with anxiety?
SW: There are various techniques to deal with anxiety on a daily basis. These three are helpful and the ones that I use the most.
1. Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Overall, I eat an anti-inflammatory diet. People used to think (and say) that anxiety and depression were caused by a deficit of serotonin in the brain. But although serotonin is a brain neurotransmitter, science now shows that 80-90 percent of the serotonin in our body is made in our digestive tract. So anxiety can be explained on a biochemical level by the health of our gut. Chronic inflammation, which is linked to almost all chronic diseases, is also linked to depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. That’s why eating an anti-inflammatory diet improves mood and overall mental health.
“…science now shows that 80-90 percent of the serotonin in our body is made in our digestive tract.”
Sugar is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to chronic inflammation. So are:
I eat three meals a day, and consistency is important for me. I don’t eat between meals. I eat a lot in the Ayurvedic tradition, have a glass of red wine every evening, and make sure to get some healthy fats and fermented foods.
Anyone I speak to who learns to meditate has usually come to it at a time when they are completely broken. Meditation is not fun— it’s tedious and it’s hard work. It’s amazing how many people get to such a low point that they have to try it. I collapsed into it and it’s a game-changer. I would not be here without it.
BZ: Why do you think the industrialized world is so anxious and wound up these days?
SW: I don’t know if life is technically more stressful than before. However, I do think that in our modern world, we are too often engaging in lifestyle practices that are emulating the anxious response in the brain.
Take technology and the constant toggling we do on our phones: this mimics the anxious response in our brains and gives us an artificial injection of it. We are doing too much and are too consumed with things that do not give us the time or space for discerning thought. Most people don’t even write things down by hand, which makes us slow down, or walk anywhere.
Toggling, running from this to that to appointments, not being attentive to things, those all happen at a pace where our ability to think, reflect, and discern cannot keep up. And that is triggering the anxious response.
Most people don’t have a Sabbath anymore, or a day of rest to pause and reflect. I know in the blue zones they do. People used to go to church and sit and talk around the lunch or dinner table.
That’s the missing piece. Humans have an incredible capacity to deal with stress and pain and trauma. What we can’t cope with is not truly connecting with ourselves and our community.
BZ: How do you deal with the problem of constant tech? Do you have a day of rest in your weekly schedule?
SW: I set aside Thursday for a day of deep reading. I can’t write books without deep reading, so I spend Thursdays doing that.
I have a morning routine, which is really effective. I carve out time to meditate and exercise and set my day up. Yoga and meditation are also part of my daily life. I also have a no technology rule after
BZ: Sounds like a really good rhythm—with a lot of blue zones principles and also a huge dose of common sense.
SW: If you have a condition like severe anxiety, then you have to see it as a responsibility. It’s like carrying a shallow bowl of water around for the rest of your life. You have to keep stable. No late nights. Eat healthy. No raucous behavior. You have to keep this bowl of water steady so it doesn’t slosh around. Because it usually sloshes all over your loved ones, which isn’t fair. And when that happens, then you have to really work to fill the back up again.
So I see it as a responsibility that’s bigger than myself. I work to keep my shit together.
I’ve also shifted how I think about these things, and choose to look at anxiety as a beautiful thing. We have to be in a space to put our anxiety to good use. Throughout history, incredible leaders, poets, and scientists have had these conditions which we now medicalize and look at as things to eradicate.
Shamans and spiritual leaders often had OCD or bipolar disorder. It’s estimated that 70 percent of poets have an anxiety disorder and it’s a similar percentage for scientists. There’s an evolutionary purpose behind it. From my own personal perspective, anxiety is my compass—it actually steers me. It tells me whether I’m on the right track.
Anxiety is the thing that gets me up in the morning and says something is not right in the world. It might be my book or my project. That’s the big picture.
In the moment, it helps to reframe it. Anxiety and excitement trigger very similar responses in the brain. So I ask myself, Am I anxious or am I excited? Just making the decision is freeing.
It’s a choice to view it that way and to live your life that way. I make the choice to see it as excitement and not a disorder.