Updated: Jan 9, 2022
I have struggled with food sensitivities, including celiac disease, for almost ten years.
Celiac is when your body triggers an immune response after consuming gluten (which is found in wheat, oats, rye, and barley). While most people associate celiac and other food sensitivities to gastrointestinal distress (fun!), mine manifested as neurological symptoms. Headache, fatigue, depression, anxiety. An impending sense of doom. Paranoia. Vertigo.
If it were up to me, I’d take farting and runny poop over not being able to move for two weeks while believing I was responsible for humanity’s utter demise ANY DAY.
Research shows that a stressful life event is often to blame for triggering dormant autoimmune disease such as celiac. This was certainly the case for me.
I was diagnosed in 2010, but a year prior, you wouldn’t have guessed I had any problems to speak of.
I was living the dream—I had just graduated from college with my bachelor’s in Psychology. I was finally dating the guy I’d been crushing on for years. He got a job in Hawaii and I followed him out there. Within months, I’d had a job doing exactly what I wanted: counseling people in need.
I was (quite literally) in paradise.
And then it all came crashing down.
The man of my dreams? He was a raging alcoholic. And I wasn’t much better. He was horribly emotionally abusive, and I had no boundaries. The result was a spiral of codependency and passive-aggressive anger that ultimately left me feeling worthless and utterly lonely.
And that dream job? It was impossible. I was enormously undertrained, and the workload and expectations that were piled on me were no match for the obstacles I faced in my environment and the population I was working with. Again, I had no boundaries. So naturally I believed that it was all my fault.
Not to mention I was on the most isolated island chain on the planet. Island fever is a thing: You feel trapped, totally disconnected from your family and friends, and you can’t leave.
So not only did I feel like everything was my fault due to poor boundaries, but I also felt completely alone.
This was the perfect storm for autoimmunity, especially when you consider that the disease I ended up with was one of leaky boundaries between the intestinal lining and the rest of the gut. The food ends up passing through the intestinal barrier, which then triggers an immune response that sends inflammation to the gut (and in my case, the brain).
The digestive system has thus failed to do its job: Instead of extracting nourishment from food, it triggers a retroactive protective mechanism that ends up hurting itself.
It was a microcosm for what was happening in my life: Instead of having strong boundaries that kept me safe while learning from my experiences, I let toxic people and situations cross my boundaries and then blamed myself for it.
And the symptoms I experienced were very similar to the trauma that preceded the disease—feeling isolated, alone, like everything is my fault, and totally powerless to change it.
The body is a funny thing.
Of course, I didn’t know all this at the time. It wasn’t until very recently that I became aware that my health problems were direct reflections where I needed to grow emotionally and spiritually.
The mind-body [dis]connection
The thing about chronic health problems is that they force you to come face-to-face with your triggers and learn new ways to cope.
One reason these illnesses become chronic is because we’re fighting with this fact—after all, we have no idea at this point that it's a call to change.
Western medicine, for all its wonders and advancements, is divorced from this idea. The body is seen as a machine: Something is wrong, you fix the organ responsible for those symptoms.
Et voila! Dr. House’s diagnosis is correct and you walk away totally fixed, forever indebted to the jerky narcissist with a god complex for saving your life.
But the brain is infinitely more complex. There is no 1:1 correspondence between brain areas and behavior (despite what you may have learned in Psych 101). It’s actually an intricate web of connectivity.
And—surprise! The body and mind are connected.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying chronic illness is in your head. It is most certainly in your body. But your body doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In the case of food sensitivities, there’s a direct line from your gut to your brain.
In fact, the gut is called “the second brain” because it contains over 100 million nerve cells and a neural circuit that transmits signals back and forth to the brain itself.
Not to mention, the “nervous system” includes not just your brain and spine, but also the connections between these and the rest of your body.
And when you’re distressed, the signal doesn’t just exist in your brain. It involves the adrenals (hello, fight or flight!), your heart and lungs (panic attack, anyone?), and—you guessed it—your gut.
The repeated, prolonged assault of chronic stress takes a toll on your poor system and leaves you feeling drained, disconnected, anxious, and unable to trust your body.
Your body is your home. You live here. So imagine not feeling at home in your body anymore—that is what chronic illness is like.
What your body is telling you
This idea that the mind and body are separate from one another influences the way we think about our body’s signals.
Instead of listening, we tend to cut ourselves off from those signals. We kill the messenger. We hate our body for betraying us.
But the good news is that you don’t have to be a victim to your health problems. Your body is trying to tell you something, which is “I am not happy.”
“Something needs to change.”
“You deserve better.”
Your body is your friend. It’s constantly telling you who to trust, which direction to go in, and how to grow spiritually.
Chronic illnesses in which we stop trusting our body’s signals can perhaps be thought of as disorders of intuition, in which we stop listening to the “still small voice” telling us to what needs to be healed in order to grow.
For me, my intuition was telling me I needed to leave this abusive relationship and quit this impossible job. I needed to heal my boundary issues and learn to stand up for myself and live in alignment with my truth. I needed to find my voice and trust my gut.
It has taken nearly 10 years, but I am now ready to do that.
It started with disentangling the emotional reaction from the food trigger so as to not rely on gluten as an “excuse” for the negative feeling.
“Getting glutened” used to be a convenient defense for my inability to cope with overwhelming emotions. I’d lash out in anger—sorry, I was glutened. I’d be depressed for 2 weeks—oops. Must’ve gotten glutened.
And the association grew stronger.
The result was “food prison.” Suddenly, I was also allergic to soy. Then strawberries. Then spinach. Then sunflower seeds. Pretty soon, I couldn’t eat anything.
Enough. No more excuses.
I had to accept that I am perfectly capable of feeling and moving through my emotions at this point in my life. There’s nothing to fear. I don’t need to retroactively defend myself anymore because I now know how to set and maintain healthy boundaries.
When I’d feel a “glutened” symptom such as anxiety, fear, depression, or impending doom, I’d shift my mind from the physical body (“I’ve been glutened”) to the emotional body.
What might be making me feel this way in my environment? Where do I need to set or clarify a boundary to make myself feel safe?
Over time, I started to see that my food sensitivities were actually working for me, rather than against me.
They’ve actually made me more sensitive to what needs to be healed by pointing me to where I’m not free.
In this way, the food sensitivity becomes a tool. It’s not something I have to make room for or work against, it's something that is actually pointing me in a direction that I need to go.
I used to be afraid to go in that direction, the direction of healing. Emotions scary! Change scary! Must defend!
Now I’m fucking fearless. Let’s go there. Let’s heal the shit out of it.
Food sensitivities as tools for boundaries and self-compassion
The thing about food sensitivities is they force you to learn how to set boundaries. Eating out at a restaurant is a perfect example of this.
*** Shout out to servers who are humble, receptive, and obliging to people with food sensitivities. You are angels in disguise. You are doing God’s work. My order of business as a millionaire would be to leave one of those insanely large tips that changes a server’s life.
When I was learning to manage my disease, I had a hard time setting boundaries with servers.
First, I was scared to tell them what I needed. I was afraid of what they’d think of me. (“Basic bitches and their diet fads, amirite?”)
Then, I was scared to send back food that was made wrong for fear of bothering someone.
I’d literally rather poison myself than get my own needs met if it meant even minorly inconveniencing the server or kitchen.
Talk about boundary issues.
Once I started to be firm in my boundaries outwardly by asking for what I needed, I still would beat myself up internally for “being needy” or “high maintenance.”
What this process slowly taught me was that it's my body, and I have a say as to what goes in it. If someone has a problem with that, it’s not about me. I’m just doing what’s right for me.
Where was this lesson when I was in Hawaii? Waiting to be learned, and the food sensitivity was there to teach me, that’s where.
Relatedly, the second thing my food sensitivity taught me was self-compassion.
Let’s say I did everything I could, and I still got glutened. The process that would naturally happen was one of self-blame—after all, there must have been something I missed.
"I knew I shouldn’t have trusted that server." "We shouldn’t have eaten out." "I can’t believe I didn’t read that label properly."
It’s my fault. It’s my fault. It’s my fault.
This is process is another learning opportunity. We think that it’s sufficient to simply avoid our triggers, whether it’s a food we’re sensitive to, or a person or situation that is toxic to us.
But no matter what happens, no matter how much we try to control it, there are just some things that are out of our control.
And in those moments, where we did everything we could and the outcome is still not what we hoped or needed, the antidote to the shame and guilt we feel is self-compassion.
This isn’t taught to us when dealing with chronic illness. “Just avoid gluten” is actually really shit medical advice. The reason is because 1. You can’t totally avoid it, no matter what you do because it magically shows up in EVERYTHING and 2. This gives the patient the impression that if they are unable to avoid gluten for reasons beyond their control, it’s somehow their fault.
The fact of the matter is that shit happens, and it’s not your fault. When you have a food sensitivity (or other chronic illness that gets “triggered” by external factors), you have to learn to balance what’s your responsibility and what’s out of your control.
What’s your responsibility is your personal boundaries. This is what you can and should control.
What’s out of your control is, well, out of your control. And here’s where the self-compassion is crucial.
You did everything you could. You are okay. I still love you.
It’s not your fault.
Making your chronic illness work for you
I'm about to say something really controversial.
I actually love my food sensitivities.
I feel indebted to them for teaching me how to set and maintain strong boundaries for healthy relationships in my life. I am grateful to them for teaching me the power of self-compassion in healing and moving forward.
How’s that for a plot twist?
***Disclaimer: In no way am I saying anyone should stop taking their prescribed medication or stop seeing their medical doctor and only do inner work for healing chronic illness. That would be dumb and anyone who accuses me of making such a recommendation is also dumb.
That said, if you suffer from chronic illness, ask yourself what was going on in your life about a year prior to the onset of the disorder. Why a year? Because we’re dealing with long-term effects of prolonged stress, and it takes a while for the assault on the body to manifest as physiological symptoms.
How do your symptoms map on to what was happening to you around that time?
Use symbolism to stretch your imagination. For instance, if you suffer from restless legs syndrome, perhaps you felt like you felt “restless” to change your situation but couldn't, or maybe you wanted to “run away” but "didn't have a leg to stand on."
Get creative, using journaling, free association, and concept maps to support you.
This is where the skill of dream interpretation comes in handy. Treat your body like you would a dream, and interpret the signals as you would symbolism from the dream world.
This requires a level of honesty that can be uncomfortable for some people. It was really icky to realize I was codependent and needed to start setting boundaries. So icky in fact, that took me about 5 years to get there.
But at a certain point, we realize we’d rather just face the truth than deal with the symptoms anymore, which as you might remember arose as a result of being severed from the truth (and the signals of truth coming from our bodies) for so long.
So bite down on that leather strap and rip off the bandaid. Here, I’ll help:
YOU’RE NOT PERFECT. Also, NOBODY CARES.
Finally, bring curiosity into everything you do and feel. When we have a chronic illness, we start to have canned responses to our symptoms, which can actually initiate the process and make it worse.
For instance, “Oh, boy here comes the lightheadedness. I’m going to be down for the count for at least 3 days, just you wait and see. And I bet the headache is not far behind—yep, there it is. Time to lay down and call myself a lazy piece of garbage until bedtime.”
But what if you could break up the canned response? Instead of falling down the spiral of symptoms and negative thought patterns and emotions, we can bring child-like curiosity and wonder to the entire process.
For instance, “I’m lightheaded—that’s interesting. What does lightheadedness feel like? It’s in the front of my head. Oh, look! There’s the thought that I’ll be out of commission for 3 days—I wonder where that comes from? Sometimes that happens, but then again sometimes I’m light headed just from standing up too fast and it goes away pretty quickly. Let’s wait and see which one this is before we jump to conclusions.”
See how that works?
An amazing thing starts to happen when you bring curiosity to your experience: You also start to cultivate self-compassion.
What’s even more amazing is you’ve now started to heal your relationship with your body. You’ve started listening. And that’s all it ever wanted from you in the first place.
Do you have chronic symptoms you're ready to heal? Visit nataliebphd.com and get clarity around what your body is trying to tell you.