Yoga for Coeliac Disease
What is Coeliac Disease?
When (then) UK Prime Minister Theresa May said in an interview that the naughtiest thing she’d ever done was to run through a wheat field, I rolled my eyes along with the rest of the nation, but as a person with Coeliac Disease I can see where she was coming from, maybe not naughty but certainly a little dangerous for someone like me.
Coeliac disease is a systemic autoimmune disorder triggered by exposure to gluten, which is most commonly found in wheat, barley, and rye. The introduction of gluten in the body causes the body to go into a state of attack (an auto immune response). Our small intestine is covered with villi, which look a little bit like the fronds of a sea anemone. These help to drastically increase the nutrient absorption area of the intestine. However, for someone with coeliac disease, when gluten is consumed the body damages the villi, which reduces the absorption area. This leaves the sufferer open to a host of associated illnesses and conditions including (but not limited to) osteoporosis, fatigue, unexpected weight-loss, dermatitis herpetiformis, anaemia, nerve damage and ataxia.
Sticking to a gluten free diet keeps conditions under control and limits symptoms. However, its not always possible to stay completely gluten free as cross-contamination, in particular when eating out, is a big problem. On a personal note, a gluten attack (as they are sometimes referred to), causes immediate vomiting / diarrhoea with intense abdominal cramps, followed by days of fatigue, brain fog and at times depression. The latter of which has fuelled my relationship with yoga.
There has been much study into the positive impact that a regular yoga practice can have on gut related issues. Certain poses help to massage internal organs while yogic breathing can help relax the gut
In one study, researchers looked into the gut environments of athletes (men with a normal BMI who engaged in light exercising) and non-athletes (overweight men with sedentary lifestyles). They found something interesting: a greater presence of a particular species of bacteria, (Akkermansiaceae, to be exact) which is linked to a reduced risk of ongoing inflammation and even a reduced risk for obesity.
Storing emotion in the gut
Additionally it has long been thought that we store tension in the gut along with different emotions in other areas of the body.
“When you’re afraid, you tend to tense your stomach and intestines. Sayings such things as, “I’m sick to my stomach,” are usually bodily responses to conflict. The more you deny or repress fears, the more physical reactions you’re likely to manifest. Begin by acknowledging your trepidation and talking it through with someone you trust. Consider all your choices and outcomes. The more you can express the fear in words, the less of a hold it will have on your body.”
Source: Psychology Today
We’ve established that some of the symptoms of gluten can be exacerbated by stress so in addition to any trauma in our gut brought about by the consumption of gluten, the episode can feel even worse as we hold our trauma in the gut too.
Digestion is controlled by the enteric nervous system which is made up of millions of nerves that communicate with the central nervous system. When the body goes into “flight or fight” response the brain refocuses the body’s energy from non essential functions like the digestive system to life saving functions like your limbs and senses. Typically in this day and age we shouldn’t have much cause to be in “flight or fight mode”, gone are the days of worrying about being chased down by a ravenous animal in the wood while out foraging or hunting for food. But actually the reverse is true. Due to the stressors of modern life, the way we sit in traffic or at our desks, and agitation brought about by over stimulus from TV and phones we spend much time in “flight or fight”. Unfortunately, when in this state the body responds with spasms through the digestive tract and an increase in the amount of acid present in the stomach or, as you and I would experience it; indigestion, diarrhoea, stomach cramping, nausea and so on. Viewed like this stress is clearly a huge aggravator of coeliac disease and related issues. It is therefore hugely important to incorporate a stress reducing practice like yoga into our lives to help reduce the impact of stress on our ongoing symptoms.
Yoga Poses to Stimulate the gut
These are just some of the yoga poses that can have a positive effect on gut health.
My yoga practice in relation to my coeliac disease
Yoga helps me to tackle each facet of my illness. I work with certain poses to help massage and strengthen my gut and others to help me deal with my fatigue and brain fog. Through a consistent practice my balance has also improved significantly. Yoga offers a holistic approach which helps me work with my symptoms. A consistent yoga practice has proven to be invaluable for my health.
I enjoy being able to choose the right kind of yoga practice to match my symptoms and mood on each day, enjoying energetic practices like vinyasa yoga on days when my energy needs lifting and restorative yoga on days when I need a more nurturing practice.
If you are recently diagnosed with coeliac disease please visit Coeliac UK for more information.
What do you think?
I’d love to hear your views on this subject as yoga students and yoga teachers. Do you have or know someone who has coeliac disease and may benefit from a regular yoga practice?