Accidentally eating gluten is like a three-alarm fire, but mindfulness can help you survive the blaze.
When it happens to Shayna Coburn, PhD, who has celiac disease, she says, “What comes to mind automatically is the worst-case scenario. ‘This is going to get so much worse. It’s going to last forever and be painful and embarrassing.’”
Coburn, a psychologist who works with celiac patients at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., compares practicing mindfulness to doing a fire drill when you are calm. “In case of a fire we want to know what to do. That’s why we practice when there’s not an emergency. That’s how we would train people to use mindfulness.”
Anxiety about the past or future is common for people with celiac disease, says Coburn. If they experienced a stressful health incident, their thoughts may linger on what went wrong.
“Being in the moment can clear that emotional baggage,” Coburn says. “It brings peace and clarity, because there’s just one thing to focus on.”
She describes four ways mindfulness can support living gluten free.
4. Adjusting to diagnosis
A diagnosis of celiac disease can overwhelm people with information. Sometimes, it brings grief or guilt about not getting help earlier. It raises worries about future health or not being able to do certain things.
“Bringing your attention back to the current moment with what you’re currently trying to do can make a big difference to move step by step through the process,” says Coburn.
The basic strategy focuses on the five senses.
“You’ll use smell, taste, touch, hearing and sight to notice everything that’s going on. This makes it more challenging for our brains to think about all the other stuff in our lives,” Coburn explains.
“For instance, for some people going to the grocery store and trying to buy food suddenly becomes a trigger for being overwhelmed. Using mindfulness to bring your attention back to your current task can help you move through it. Mindfulness, too, is accepting the thoughts and feelings that come up for you. If being in a grocery store makes you anxious and overwhelmed, it’s OK to feel that way. Give yourself permission. Try not to judge or make yourself feel a certain way. Instead, recognize this is where you are now. It will pass,” Coburn says.
Then use a strategy to help remember you are safe in the moment. It could be a quick walk around the store just noticing things instead of thinking about them, taking a few moments to focus on breathing, or inspecting the ingredient label on one package.
3. Safer food choices
Mindful eating is beneficial for many reasons, even for those who are not on a restricted diet, because the practice usually leads to people making healthier food choices while eating less.
Coburn says, “It’s easy to multitask while eating and not pay attention to the body’s cues about hunger and fullness. Mindfulness gives the perspective of what is making me want to eat, how my body feels, what this food is like, and when I feel satiated.”
Impulsive eating can cause mistakes if we neglect to look and ask questions first, such as when sharing food with a friend, Coburn adds.
“When I’m shopping, I often need to remind myself to slow down,” says Emily Souder, a social worker who coaches young moms and expectant parents in Catonsville, Maryland. She has Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which causes thyroid damage, and is gluten sensitive. “I need to remind myself to see what I’m currently looking at rather than thinking about the next thing or five things on my list. I stop, pause and take in the product. I read the ingredients and check in with its impact on my body. If it feels that it will nourish me—yes, this includes chocolate, I’m all about intuitive eating—I can make an informed choice.”
Andrea Nazarenko, PhD, author of When Food Hurts and co-owner of a wellness clinic in Lexington, South Carolina, says she regularly uses mindfulness to prevent falling off the gluten-free wagon.
“Mindfulness helped me take control of my mind. It helped me pause and allow myself the space to say, do I really want this? What are the implications? The slight pause is the essence of willpower. It’s the ability to move beyond what you desire to what you actually need.”
Coburn says children especially may resist trying new foods. She encourages parents to provide a range of options without forcing children to try them. Whatever they choose to eat, avoid making judgments.
“Talk about the color of the food, the texture. What does it smell like? What are the flavors: not just yummy or disgusting, but is it sweet, salty, bitter, crunchy, soft, hot or cold? Mindful practices can help us accept different kinds of foods, not view them as good or bad.”
Coburn says mindfulness exercises are most effective for teenagers and into adulthood. Younger children might be ready when they talk about thoughts or worries going through their heads.
2. Managing symptoms with mindfulness
The mind connects to the whole body through the nervous system. A particularly complex link ties into the digestive system. Coburn calls this the gut-brain axis.
In some individuals, the brain may perceive any digestive discomfort as a threat. Conversely, anxiety sends stress hormones throughout the body. It can impair digestion. Regardless of whether the gut or brain drives symptoms, the two are connected. Mindfulness eases the mind and relaxes the body. Targeting both builds resilience, a sense of being able to overcome stress. The goal is to break the cycle of constant activation and the burden it causes, Coburn says.
For example, when experiencing cramps, she suggests, “Ask yourself what is coming up for you when you feel those cramps. Are you scared of them, expecting them to get worse? Or do I have cramps because I’m already stressed about something else going on in my life?”
Try to lean into the experience instead of judging or trying to make it stop, she says: “Do a scan of the body. What does this feel like? Can I visualize where it is in my body? Is it sharp, blunt, diffuse or localized to one area? Try to understand it. It’s telling us something, and we want to listen.”
1. Handling emotions
Exposure to gluten can cause embarrassment, sadness, depression and frustration. Risk of exposure may cause people to avoid difficult situations. While it is important to learn from mistakes, mindfulness helps find a balance between being safe and living life freely. Awareness of thoughts and feelings helps find new ways to face difficult situations, Coburn says.
For example, many people worry about going to restaurants or parties, making a mistake and becoming sick, or how other people will judge their diet.
Souder says, “My dietary needs seem to make other people more uncomfortable than they make me. People sometimes apologize for eating in front of me, and that feels so silly. Mindfulness has helped a great deal in social situations, though. Instead of focusing on food, I can focus on people, conversations, sights and smells.”
Souder adds, “The biggest effect Hashimoto’s currently has on my quality of life is through physical symptoms (fatigue, joint pain, etc.) rather than through feeling deprived. Mindfulness has helped me reach a place of acceptance.”
In people with celiac, the first stomach twinge can raise anxiety.
Coburn says, “The fire alarm can sound those sirens too early and send our body into survival mode. That in itself can bring on more digestive distress and physical pain. If we allow ourselves to say, ‘This is not great, but you know what? It’s going to be such a relief when it’s over,’ it helps us move through much more quickly. Similarly, as we start to recover, trying not to relive what just happened can make a big difference. Staying in that moment, things might be painful or unpleasant, but it passes. If we stick with it, we’ll experience relief.”
Many find it difficult to stay in the here and now. However, there are many approaches to suit different lifestyles. Formal meditation can support mindfulness but is not required.
Coburn admits, “Activity is much easier for me than something more passive. You can do anything mindfully. The more mundane, the more repetitive, the better.”
Here are some ways to learn:
- Download an app. Coburn recommends Mindfulness Coach. Souder recommends Insight Timer.
- Many guided exercises are available online. Coburn recommends a relaxing body scan to guide you from head to toe.
- Smart home devices offer mindfulness exercises on request.
- Yoga promotes mindfulness.
- Ask a doctor for a referral or look for local mindfulness-based therapists.
- Look for local courses in mindfulness-based stress reduction or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.
Arielle Lapiano, a mindfulness facilitator in New York, says she is a huge fan of affirmations before eating, such as, “Food fuels my health,” or, “I take a beat before I eat.” Diagnosed with celiac as a baby and later with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Lapiano suggests affirmations could also help after exposure to gluten. Think of a short sentence expressing acceptance and trusting in the body to heal.
Whatever activity you choose, it should promote a simple focus to clear the mind, Coburn says. The best approach varies from person to person. Some people have a hard time noticing where their attention goes. Even people who find mindfulness useful need lots of practice.
A fire drill works when there is no emergency. It takes commitment to keep practicing, accept whatever happens, and live in the moment.