Why Caused Charles Darwin’s Anxiety Attacks? Hint – it was not “in his head.”

Shortly after 27 year-old Charles Darwin returned to England in 1836 after his five-year voyage on the Beagle, the father of evolutionary theory began complaining of “constant attacks” – heart palpitations, trembling, shortness of breath, vomiting, extreme fatigue, depression, and “swimming in the head.” He declined a secretaryship at the Geological Society of London because “anything that flurries me completely knocks me up afterward.” Two years later the adventurous explorer retreated to his country home in Kent and became a recluse, rarely leaving his home and then traveling in a carriage with darkened windows. Darwin never learned the true nature of his malady. For forty years, he complained to over twenty doctors who diagnosed his problems as anything from “dyspepsia with aggravated character” to “suppressed gout.”

Today many books and papers have explained Darwin's mystery illness as psychiatric – as psychosomatic, hypochondria, bereavement syndrome, an expression of repressed anger toward his father, or genetic, noting a familial vulnerability to the symptoms Darwin described. But the general consensus has been that Darwin probably suffered panic disorder with agoraphobia, which would explain his secluded lifestyle and difficulty in speaking before groups and meeting with colleagues.

Other researchers have looked for an organic cause, including arsenic poisoning, Chagas' disease from an insect bite in South America, or multiple allergies. Drs. Campbell and Mathews of the Darwin Centre for Biology and Medicine, Milton, Pembrokeshire, UK believe otherwise. To them, all evidence suggests a food link: lactose intolerance which appeared to run in his family.

Lactose intolerance results when the body doesn’t produce enough lactase, an enzyme needed to break down lactose, the main source of carbohydrates in milk, into simple sugars. Two to three hours after he ate, the time it takes for lactose to reach the large intestine, Darwin experienced vomiting and gut problems. Darwin only got better when, by chance, he stopped taking milk and cream.

If these researchers are correct, Darwin’s heart palpitations, trembles, shortness of breath, vomiting, extreme fatigue, and “swimming in the head” were signs not of anxiety and panic but food intolerance. Agoraphobia was not a fear of leaving the safety of his home but of being too ill to do so. The solution to his woes was not probing his psyche but not ingesting milk products.

Information taken from Anxiety: Hidden Causes.