Celiac.com 01/02/2021 – You are what you eat—right?
Although it sounds simple enough, on closer examination, it’s a whole lot more complicated than it appears. Now throw in some gluten, a couple of celiac encoded alleles, some villous atrophy, and suddenly it becomes a little murky. You’re not only what you eat—but also what you’re able to digest, absorb, assimilate, and eliminate. If you have celiac disease, this whole process becomes compromised, ending with an inability to efficiently use the nutrients consumed—even if your diet is good.
Celiac disease is a genetically predisposed autoimmune condition in which gliadin, the toxic fraction of gluten, stimulates an inflammatory response in the gastrointestinal tract. The primary site of injury is the small intestine, which is also where most digestion, absorption, and assimilation of nutrients occur. Digestion is the mechanical and chemical breakdown of food into simple molecules that can be absorbed and used by the body. Assimilation is the process in which that fuel enters the cells and tissues and provides us with vitamins, minerals, and caloric energy.
What natural approaches can we utilize to help heal the gastrointestinal tract, address nutritional needs, boost immunity, and increase overall wellbeing? We’ll get to that in a minute, but first it’s important to take a closer look at what’s going on when that bagel and cream cheese we ate for breakfast starts wreaking havoc once it’s swallowed. We know that celiac disease is characterized by damage to the lining of the small intestine (villous atrophy), which can lead to malabsorption of nutrients and secondary autoimmune conditions and food intolerances. That’s not good. But, on the upside, we also know what the precipitating environmental factor is that leads to celiac disease and its unpleasant side effects. It’s food (the gluten in the bagel) which, in the grand scheme of things, is a pretty good deal as far as autoimmune diseases go. By removing gluten from the diet and making positive lifestyle changes, significant improvement often occurs fairly quickly.
As Hippocrates so aptly put it more than two thousand years ago, “Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food.” That sounds pretty good to me. I can’t complain when part of my prescription for healing is a nice meal of grilled salmon, brown rice with shiitake mushrooms, roasted beets, and a spinach salad. Add a small chunk of organic dark chocolate with raspberries and a cup of herbal tea and how can I possibly complain? That’s my kind of medicine. *See nutrition therapy notes at the end of this article.
Nutrition therapy, appropriate supplementation, yoga, and enhanced mind-body awareness provide the holistic components needed to assist the healing process and restore vitality, resilience, and optimal health. The idea is to make appropriate lifestyle changes to facilitate healing and bring wholeness and balance to the body. The following list contains a few highlights from my own wellness odyssey. See if some variation of these approaches might work for you as well.
Maintain an Open Mind
Health care isn’t simply about diagnosing a disease and prescribing medication. It’s about treating the whole person—body, mind, and spirit. It’s about enhanced self-care, knowledge, awareness, and preventive therapy. Holistic approaches tailor treatments to meet the unique needs, both biochemical and social, of the individual. These aren’t quick fixes; they are subtle and powerful transformations that can cause a chain reaction of positive outcomes. Celiac disease presents a complex challenge, but it can also be the incentive needed to effectively change your mind, your body, your health, and your life—in a positive new direction. Explore the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda; take a natural cooking class; discover the benefits of whole, organic foods; try yoga, meditation, or tai chi. Our bodies are not made up of unrelated systems, so it is important, especially with multi-symptom autoimmune conditions like celiac disease, to focus on a multitude of lifestyle changes to achieve optimal health.
Eat a Variety of Simple Foods
That literally means simple foods—whole, fresh and preferably organic. If there is a long list of ingredients on the label, if you can’t pronounce the words, or if you don’t recognize them as real food, avoid it. Whole foods are gluten-free by default. You don’t need to read the label on an apple. It’s much harder to decipher what’s in a baked apple treat from a fast food chain, especially when there are 40 different ingredients listed, many of which are unrecognizable. Go to the source—choose the apple. Eliminate or minimize processed foods.
You also might want to reconsider if your food is being delivered through a window while you’re in your car—even if the meal is gluten-free. Celiac disease is characterized by compromised digestion; don’t add to it by eating fast food in the fast lane. Sit down, relax, chew your food well, and consciously eat and enjoy your meal. How you eat is almost as important and nourishing as what you eat.
Experiment with Different Grains
Exchanging wheat for white rice flour and tapioca starch is okay in small doses, but there are so many more nutritious choices available. Teff is much higher in calcium, magnesium, and iron. The whole grain makes a great breakfast porridge and the flour adds richness and flavor to baked goods. Amaranth, unlike wheat, contains all the essential amino acids and is considered a high-quality protein. The same goes for quinoa, which is incredibly versatile.
Choose Supplements Wisely
One of the most widely used forms of alternative therapy today is the use of herbal and dietary supplements. Many of these are helpful, some are ineffective, and others may be harmful. Educate yourself before taking supplements that make extraordinary health claims. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Supplements can be expensive, often contain hidden gluten, and may interact with medications, so it’s important to do your homework before you buy them.
Having said that, there are some important supplements to consider including in your wellness regimen. While a good, high-quality multivitamin and mineral supplement is no substitute for a variety of whole fruits and vegetables, it might be helpful to ensure you’re getting the micronutrients you need, especially considering the nutrient deficiencies that are often secondary to celiac disease. Choose a high-quality multi and make sure it’s gluten-free and can be easily digested. Many tablets are so tightly pressed and packed with binders that they are nearly impossible to digest. Hard tablets can be crushed and added to applesauce or other soft foods to disguise the taste. That works in the same way that chewing your food thoroughly before swallowing does—both increase the efficient breakdown and use of nutrients, whether in food or a multivitamin. I have a small mortar and pestle that I use to crush tablets for easier absorption. You can also find multivitamins in soft-gel capsules, which dissolve easier when mixed with digestive juices.
Probiotics can help restore balance to the digestive tract, especially if you’ve taken antibiotics. These beneficial “friendly” bacteria occur naturally in cultured milk products, but also come in liquid or capsule form. An imbalance of intestinal bacteria can increase symptoms associated with celiac disease.
Digestive enzymes are protein molecules that accelerate biochemical reactions. They break down our food so we can absorb it more efficiently. Supplementing with digestive enzymes may be helpful for people with chronic GI problems. There are many different varieties of digestive enzymes; some are from plant sources, some are animal-based, some contain gluten. Consult with your health care professional for help in determining which ones are right for you. And always check to make sure they are gluten-free.
I saved this for last because of the importance it plays in overall health and wellbeing. It is estimated that 16 million or more Americans practice yoga on a regular basis and many are convinced (and I’m one of them) that it is the key to enhanced physical and emotional health. Western scientists are just beginning to study and appreciate the wide range of benefits yoga offers people with chronic conditions. Research shows that a committed yoga practice not only strengthens and tones the body, but also quiets the mind and reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, relieves asthma symptoms, balances hormones, strengthens the cardiovascular system, eases digestive problems, helps alleviate inflammation, and on and on. There’s a reason it’s been around for thousands of years.
Exploring holistic and alternative approaches to health and healing might be the perfect “medicine” for reversing the problems associated with celiac disease. And before you know it, you won’t define yourself as having a disease, you’ll define yourself as having renewed inspiration and vitality.
*Nutrition therapy notes
(This is the short version; I’m only listing the highlights. These foods were chosen to boost immune function and reduce symptoms associated with celiac disease.)
- Salmon—Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation and are thought to be protective against many types of cancers. Salmon is also rich in selenium, tryptophan and vitamin D.
- Brown rice—Excellent source of manganese, selenium, magnesium and fiber.
- Shiitake mushrooms—A symbol of longevity in Asian culture, these mushrooms are rich in a compound called lentinan, which boosts immune function. They are also high in antioxidants and iron.
- Beets—Good source of antioxidants; rich in folate, manganese, and potassium.
- Spinach—Calorie for calorie, spinach is a powerhouse. It’s packed with vitamins K, A, and C, manganese, folate and iron.
- Dark Chocolate (gluten-free)—I’m sure you’ve heard the news; dark chocolate is very high in protective antioxidants. It is also rich in magnesium, iron, and vitamin D. Aren’t we lucky!
1. Cellier C, Green P. Review Article: Medical Progress—Celiac Disease. N Engl J Med 2007;357:1731-43.