According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, only 1% of the population has Celiac Disease, an auto-immune condition that damages the villi of the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food, rendering gluten indigestible. However, if you look around, you will notice that a lot more than 1% of the people you know are avoiding wheat. What's going on with the rest of us?
Is it possible to recover from gluten sensitivity?
One important thing to note is that Celiac disease is not specifically a gluten intolerance; it is the damaged villi that inhibits a person with Celiac Disease from being able to eat wheat and gluten. That being said, the only way to control this disease is by completely avoiding gluten and anything that has come into contact with it.
As for the rest of us, we are not actually suffering from gluten sensitivity or intolerance, as we tend to call it. Rather, we are suffering from poor digestion. Wheat and gluten are very difficult to digest foods, therefore when digestion is compromised it makes sense that we avoid them.
So what causes poor digestion to begin with?
It is readily apparent that our Standard American Diet (SAD) does not cultivate good digestion. Many of our foods are processed and packaged, full of preservatives and have been sitting on the shelf for months (or years). These foods are dead; they do not provide us with vitality and they do not digest well.
However, while making better food choices is a good starting point, the answer to why many people suffer from poor digestion goes way beyond this. If you are following this blog/newsletter it is likely that you are already putting time and attention into eating well.
Much of the reason for poor digestion is not WHAT we are eating, but HOW we are eating it. Healthy food combined with unwise habits will still result in toxic build up (ama) and weak digestion.
Here's a little quiz you can do - How many of these digestive damaging habits are you guilty of? (Be honest, but don't beat yourself up - many of these principals are completely unknown in the West!)
- Eating too quickly, not chewing food thoroughly. Food should be chewed until it becomes liquid in the mouth. A meal should take around 20 minutes to eat. Place your eating utensil down between bites and do not take another bite until the previous one has been chewed and swallowed.
- Eating at irregular times of the day. The body, like everything in nature, works in cycles. If Mother Earth decided to bring the sun up at 5am one day, then abruptly switch to 8am the next, complete chaos would ensue! Eating on a regular schedule helps the body to generate the proper digestive liquids at the right times.
- Eating too much late at night. Digestion is strongest between 10am and 2pm, so this is when you should eat your largest meal. Dinner should be light and end by or before 7pm, allowing several hours to digest. If you go to bed on a full stomach, your food will putrify in the gut, feeding unsavory bacteria which can cause further gut disruption, such as leaky gut (a primary cause of food intolerances).
- Eating when stressed or under other negative emotions - or eating in a chaotic environment. The body does not produce the proper digestive liquids, especially hydrocholoric acid, when under stress. Eat when calm, in a calm environment. Do not multi-task when eating, such as checking email, reading or watching TV.
- Eating cold or frozen foods. In Ayurveda, it is said that for each degree below body temperature your food is, it will take 5 additional minutes to digest. Cold and frozen foods and beverages will put out digestive fire, making future meals more difficult to digest. (This includes ice in your water!)
- Poor food combining. Eating too many foods together in one meal, or combining incompatible foods will result in poor digestion. If you haven't already, take a glance at this list of Ayurvedic food combining.
- Eating foods out of season. Wheat is one of the most prominent in this category - its lubricating and grounding nature is suitable for winter, but terrible for spring. (Here's an article about Spring allergies and diet with more info.) Mother Nature provides us with what we need, when we need it. Disrupting this natural cycle will disrupt the natural cycles within our bodies.
- Overeating (at any time of day). Ayurveda teaches us to eat until we are satisfied, not full. This takes some practice and finesse, but you can do it. Research shows that people who consistently undereat live longer, too! Eating too much taxes the digestive system and creates toxic build up, not to mention that food is rotting in the gut - yuck! Even healthy food when eating in excess results in poor digestion. The proper ratio is to fill the stomach 1/3 with food, 1/3 with water and 1/3 with air.
- Eating foods in the wrong order. This sound strange, doesn't it? But think about it: what do you think happens in the digestive tract when you eat a really hard to digest food, then put something that digests quickly on top of it? The easy to digest food gets slowed down and, again, will begin to rot and ferment in the gut. This is especially true of sweets - the sweet taste digests most quickly, and is also the biggest culprit for feeding Candida yeasts and other bad gut bacteria. Instead, eat sweet tastes (these also encourage hunger) and easy to digest foods first, and difficult to digest foods last. (Knowing what's easy and what's difficult is a whole separate article...)
This list gives many ideas of what you can do to improve eating habits, which therefore improves digestion and gets you closer to being able to tolerate gluten again. For more tips on how you can improve digestion now, take a look at this article.
However, if you are already at a place in which you don't tolerate gluten, a total digestive reset is in order. (Fall cleanse groups are coming up soon!) In the meantime, eat gently and avoid those difficult to digest foods, but rest assured that you CAN heal gluten intolerance!