The Link Between Coeliac Disease and Mental Health

As it’s both coeliac awareness week and mental health awareness week, I decided to write about the effect coeliac disease can have on mental health.  

Coeliac disease is a lifelong autoimmune condition where the body has an immune reaction to gluten causing damage to the lining of the intestine. This prevents the body from absorbing essential nutrients which keep the brain healthy such as B vitamins, zinc and tryptophan. Doctor James M. Greenblatt has studied the link between depression and coeliac disease. He says “These nutrients are necessary for the production of essential chemicals in the brain such as serotonin, a deficiency of which has been linked to depression.” 

The only treatment for people with coeliac disease is following a 100% gluten free diet. Many of the symptoms for undiagnosed coeliac disease are physical such as bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea and unexpected weight loss. But of course being malnourished and fatigued can lead to all kinds of emotional difficulties too. There is ongoing research to suggest the link between our brain and the gut with studies that say coeliac disease doesn’t just damage the digestive tract but can also have an impact on the psychological health of sufferers. Some of the psychological symptoms for untreated coeliac include anxiety, depression and panic attacks.  

One study found that anxiety, but not depression, in patients with undiagnosed coeliac disease decreased after one year following a gluten free diet. Another concluded that autoimmune disorders increased the risk of mood disorders by 45% and having coeliac disease increased the risk of developing a mood disorder by 91%. 

It’s important that we break the stigma so because I believe we all need to be more open about mental health, I’m going to share a bit about my own personal experience even though it feels like a scary thing to do. 

Personally, talking openly about the physical side of my coeliac disease has always been far easier to do than discussing my experience of depression and anxiety. I have difficulty even using these labels, I’ve previously opted to use terms that play it down like “low mood” or “feeling fragile”. These phrases barely even begin to cover the debilitating reality of panic attacks and feeling hopeless or being smothered by complete despair. However mental health and physical health are so interlinked that it makes little sense to talk about one without the other.  

As a teenager I was underweight, constantly fatigued, incredibly anxious and went through periods of depression. I struggled with self-harm in various forms. I felt sick all of the time, especially after eating. I had skin rashes, candida overgrowth, dizziness, a few episodes of fainting and a general feeling of being unwell. When I was 18, three years after my first trip to the doctors complaining of the above symptoms, I was finally tested for coeliac disease by a GP who couldn’t believe he was the first to think of it! Following the endoscopy I was officially diagnosed.  

I’d just moved a 10 hour train ride away from home to go to university so I began my gluten free life at the same time as becoming independent for the first time. It took years for the physical and emotional symptoms to ease up. The damage caused to the intestine from eating gluten can’t be repaired overnight. It takes time for the gut to heal and the body to slowly start to level out. I still struggle at times with depression and anxiety, but going gluten-free to treat my coeliac disease eased the severity of my anxiety significantly. 

The interesting thing I have noticed is that every time I get “glutened” (the term for accidental ingestion of gluten due to cross contamination or mistaking something for being gluten free that’s not) my mood drops dramatically. All the physical symptoms come back in a tidal wave knocking my system out completely and it takes days or maybe weeks to feel balanced again emotionally and physically. This is why it’s so important that food handlers and restaurants understand the severity of a coeliac’s reaction to even the smallest amount of gluten, making it absolutely essential that there is no risk of gluten cross contamination when preparing a meal for someone with coeliac disease. 

The link between coeliac disease and mental health cannot be ignored and it is of the upmost importance that people are offered tests for coeliac disease so that they don’t go undiagnosed, risking the damaging physical and psychological effects.  1 in 100 people in the UK have coeliac disease, you can find a list of symptoms here so please get tested if you have any of the symptoms and remember there is support out there for those going through mental health difficulties, you can check out Mind and Samaritans.

Going gluten-free changed my life. I am so grateful to have caught my coeliac disease sooner rather than later so that I could focus on getting my physical and mental health back. I now run a gluten-free travel blog called Coeliac on The Road to celebrate that being coeliac doesn’t have to hold you back and it can actually lead you to some unique, unexpected places. 

 

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Gluten-free in North Goa

Before our big trip travelling around India our first stop was in Vagator for 1 week at a great hostel called ‘The Jungle’. They do dorm rooms for a cheap price and private rooms for a few rupees extra, it’s a lively place to stay thriving with travellers from all over the world. You can grab some boiled eggs, bananas & tea in the morning for free before heading out for the day. I also got a yummy peanut butter GF cookie from their coffee shop and cooked some decent meals in the communal kitchen which has a fridge, gas stove and cooking utensils. We picked up some essentials like veg, spices, rice & lentils from Mapusa market for our home cooking.

My first experience eating out was amazing, went to a French restaurant on the beach called ‘La Plage’ that a friend had recommended. It’s in between Vagator and Arambol, on Ashvem beach. I used my gluten free Hindi card to explain my dietary requirements  (thanks to celiactravel.com) and the waiter kindly confirmed the green risotto I’d chosen was GF. It was delicious, I’ve honestly never had a better risotto and eating on the beach by palm trees was a luxury.

The next place I ate out was just round the corner from our hostel in Vagator, it’s a vegan restaurant called ‘Bean Me Up’ and it was so good that I had to go again the next day for lunch. The menu offers a wide range of fresh juices, smoothies and the fermented drink Kombucha which is full of health benefits. It also mentions celiacs in the menu so I was instantly reassured that I was in the right place! Pictured below is a GF vegan pizza made with ragi flour (millet) which is high in protein and a great GF alternative. There’s also a green smoothie and a tempah, tofu & veg stir fry with brown rice. It was delicious (and all less than £10 believe it or not). The staff were great and the vibe of the place is super chilled with a good awareness of nutrition and sustainability.

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There’s loads of fruit & veg stalls in the street where you can pick up things to make your own food too and the good thing I’ve found so far in India is that if I’m ever stuck I know I can always get a bowl of plain rice or a handful of bananas/pomegranates/mangoes so shouldn’t ever be without something to eat.

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We’ve just taken 1 taxi, 1 bus, 3 tuk-tuks, 1 train, and 1 boat to get to Hampi from Vagator so watch this space! (Although I currently can’t eat a thing as I’ve picked up travel sickness, most likely from tap water ice cubes or just generally an adjustment to new climate. Fingers crossed I get to eat lots of GF treats soon!)

How One Island is Leading the Way for Mindfulness Based Education in France

This article by Jasmine Irving was also featured on The Huffington Post blog.

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L’étang salée beach in La Réunion
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Me meditating in La Réunion

Teaching meditation in schools is becoming a recognised technique to improve mental health amongst students. Educators across the world are realising the significant benefits for students, schools and communities. Research combined from different studies around the world has shown that meditation in schools can have positive effects on student’s personal well-being, as well as their social and academic skills.

I spoke to Rodolphe Sinimale, a change-maker and social entrepreneur from Réunion Island to find out more about bringing meditation to schools. Réunion is a French island in the Indian Ocean just East of Madagascar. With a high unemployment rate, particularly among the young, mindfulness in education is an integral tool enabling the island’s future generation to be equipped to deal with growing social tensions and difficulty finding work.

Rodolphe spoke to me about two pioneering projects taking place in Réunion in state schools, one in a middle school, college Hubert De-Lisle and one in a primary school l’Ecole Primaire Antoine Lucas.

The aim is to use meditation to help the students to cultivate loving-kindness, emotional intelligence, focus and compassion. For Rodolphe, and the community of teachers and leaders backing this project, it’s important to be active in making a positive contribution to society and the world around us. When I asked him why he wanted to bring meditation to schools he spoke of one night in Madagascar where he was threatened by armed men, he said “when faced with your own mortality, we realise what’s important, and that’s taking care of each other. Since then I try to cultivate compassion and loving kindness every day, even if it’s not easy, and meditation is really a great way to do that.”

Rodolphe says that the workshops and programme itself took about “two years to get off the ground as it takes a lot of planning, organisation and, mostly, energy to develop. You also need leaders with vision, wisdom and courage to make that much needed step.” Pascal Chabernaud is the director of innovation at the French Ministry of Education (l’Education Nationale) and it’s thanks to him that the mindfulness project was welcomed to schools in Réunion. Pascal is aware of the important role teacher’s play in a student’s development and his dream for education is that it should be open, shared, collaborative and positive.

The first time Rodolphe went into school to teach meditation he could feel his heart beating fast with nerves but he said that right away he saw the “light, simplicity, enthusiasm and creativity” of the students which deeply inspired him.

Through the meditation classes, significant changes appeared very quickly in the children. For example their ability to say “I’m angry” and accept the emotion, instead of getting angry and finding it challenging to articulate how they are feeling. It was also noticed that there was an improvement to their ability to be present and collaborate with one another.

Rodolphe comments “it was beautiful to watch them transforming.” He does notice that there are certain challenges with working within institutions and the education system but says that “there is so much suffering in today’s world, we must act and try to have a positive impact in any way that we can.”

At the middle school, college Hubert Delisle, meditation workshops are offered to students in years 7 and 9. According to head teacher, Lionel Mailfert, a revolution is underway. He says that he is driven by the desire to “offer students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, a practice that allows them to be happy, to live in harmony with others and to succeed in their learning.”

Since such a practice has been introduced, some students have even seen their marks go up. During the meditation, the students are invited to allow and accept thoughts to come and go without judging them. They are asked to bring awareness to their breathing and alongside the meditation itself they also get to study into the biology of the brain and how stress has an impact on the body.

Long-term objectives of bringing meditation to the school is to stop bullying, to create a safer space and a more peaceful school life, as well as developing students’ self-confidence. Students and teachers have noticed the benefits for themselves. Lucas, in year 7 said “It helps us to relax, de-stress and reflect” and Ms Delebarre noted “the students are less stressed, it’s much calmer and they find it easier to listen.”

The programmes underway in Réunion are gaining interest from other schools and teachers, as well as from community leaders. It’s clear how much difference a handful of people can make to get a movement started.

The movement in Réunion was part inspired by a quote from the Dalai Lama “If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.” Some might argue that this is an idealistic and simplistic viewpoint but the real and experienced benefits of students and teachers in Réunion Island definitely show that meditation can positively impact students and hopefully in turn, the world around us.

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One of the mindfulness exercises: planting the loving kindness seed, and taking care of it everyday with compassionate thoughts

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Rodolphe and his dog Sushi photographed by Stephanie Lorente

You can find Rodolphe Sinimale at his website here.

Announcement for the Next Big Adventure!

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I have something very exciting planned for the early months of 2017.

I am super excited to announce that early next year Coeliac On The Road is taking a trip to INDIA!

WATCH this space because I’m travelling with a very talented photographer (Hogg Photography) so some creative collaboration is already underway for our big trip.

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This year has been very challenging due to some personal struggles within my own head following a traumatic experience. I wasn’t expecting to be getting on the road again quite so soon after returning home to be around close family and friends.

But life can throw some unexpected twists and turns and so in February, I will be embarking on my first big trip with someone rather than solo…falling in love has added a whole new dynamic to the idea of travel and I’m excited to see what it’s like sharing such an adventure with another person by my side.

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The pic below is a snap taken by a friend in Réunion Island last year celebrating Diwali, there are a lot of Hindu people living in Réunion Island from Indian descent and so I started to learn about Hinduism, traditional Indian food and spent a peaceful time at a local Ashram, meditating and listening to devotional singing as well as getting to meet Amma, a much loved Hindu spiritual leader.

Yoga and meditation have helped me get through alot and I am so happy to have the chance to go to India where many of these practices originate from. I’m even hoping to do a yoga teacher training course to deepen my own practice.

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If you have any advice or recommendations for a gluten free traveler in India then please let me know 🙂

On Saying Goodbye

Samhain is a pagan Celtic festival celebrated on the 31 October. It’s a time to celebrate the last of the autumn harvest and welcome in the onset of winter, embracing the darkness to come and remembering loved ones who have passed away. With this in mind I’m sharing a poem I wrote on that theme and wishing you all a restful and restorative winter!

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Saying Goodbye To Rose Cottages

The apple tree stands,

split bark, gnarled roots and

rusted boat parts underfoot,

deep in the ground where

we left him behind.

It watches over a cottage,

with doors that clatter,

an abundance of bricks

stacked to make walls

and window frames which

hold the estuary close.

Boots covered in moss hide amongst

the daffodils,

house martins flutter in, out, in.

Here there is life of some sort

until, those

inevitable flames lick the debris,

which soon turn to ash

beginnings rekindle an end.

We take it in turns to turn away,

from all walls that we knew,

there’s little reason to stay.

And if he asks you – were we running?

Well, you can tell him we were flying,

do tell him we were flying.

By Jasmine Irving

(Last few lines reference to the song “Take This Hammer” http://www.lyricsfreak.com/l/leadbelly/take+this+hammer_20318147.html )

How Workaway Can Provide a Perfect Platform for Creativity

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As a writer and artist it can be difficult finding both the time and space to get creative in the standard working week back at home. Workaway provided me with the perfect place to get inspired, be motivated and create whilst having a healthy balance of work on the farm alongside personal projects. It’s a fair share work exchange site, where traveller’s stay with different hosts and help out in exchange for food and board.

I started my Workaway journey in 2014 after graduating. My head was clouded with feelings of obligation like I should be finding a graduate job, I should apply for a masters but my heart was yearning for something else, for connection, space and adventure.

I turned up in France alone with my backpack, work boots and a curious step. I remember the moment where my first host, Dina, greeted me smiling and welcomed me with open arms into the community of creatives that had been drawn to her farm.

We started every day with some dance yoga in the morning and ate delicious vegetarian food, taking it in turns to cook and clear up. Sharing daily household tasks makes it a lot easier to have time to follow your own projects, when I’m at home cooking/cleaning for one a lot of time is lost. Work on the farm could be anything from weeding the strawberry beds to renovating one of the rooms in the old farmhouse.

Working alongside others provides a great opportunity to discover more about fellow travellers and different cultures. In opening up and sharing with others I learnt more about myself too. This is important when it comes to self-expression through art because it invites various ways of communicating a story which can be translated into creative projects. At Dina’s farm I did more creative writing in 3 weeks than I think I’ve ever done in such a short space of time.

Dina also has a big art studio and a dance studio. She encouraged me to try out print making by carving into plastic, as well as improvised dance, which are things I hadn’t done before. We also made a video together with one of the other volunteers, allowing us to explore the local areas.

The whole experience was so positive that my mum was inspired to do her first Workaway and went to the same farm whilst I was off travelling elsewhere. She had a wonderful time and ended up using work exchange to travel France for a few months, proving that there’s no age limit to this kind of travel. I even went back to Dina’s farm 2 years later this summer with a childhood friend who’s a dancer and she said it was one of the most transformative weeks of her life.

After working on the farm, my friend and I spent hours in the studio dancing and making a short video for a poem I wrote there about transformation. Dina also has lots of experience running workshops so we were lucky enough to partake in one of her workshops for women, a valuable experience that helped us both to grow and connect.

With work exchange travel I’ve built bonds across borders and been inspired to tap into a vibrant source of creativity, one which can be hard to access from the restrictions in modern day city life. The great thing about it is you can fit the volunteer placements into your own schedule. You can work, travel and create for years, months or weeks depending on your commitments back home. The things I learnt at the farm will stay with me forever and I can’t wait for the next project that I get to jump on board with.

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Dina’s farm in France

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Scout, Dina and me

Video for poem:

Dina’s art website.

Top 5 for Gluten Free in Newcastle

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The North East of England is a unique place well worth a visit. I grew up here and was surprised when I moved down south to Cornwall to discover that so many people had never explored further upcountry than Leeds or even London.

With stunning coastal walks, the wild Northumberland country side and an urban landscape rich in culture with some of the most friendly people you will ever meet – who wouldn’t want to venture up north for a visit?!

Having been away traveling for so long, I was even happier coming home to find out that Newcastle has some fantastic places to eat gluten free. I made a list of my top 5.

The Sky Apple Café

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I’ve loved this place since it first opened in 2002. The food is delicious with both a daytime and evening menu. There’s even a deli next door for quick take-away food, including gluten free sandwiches and wraps. There’s vegan options and everything is vegetarian, the café itself has a calming atmosphere and it’s an all-round lovely place to be.

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Near the quayside in the Ouseburn valley, this artsy bar/café offers various gluten free food on the menu including delicious GF flatbreads which are basically big pizzas with a variety of toppings. My favourite is the wild mushroom and garlic. There’s also a variety of cultural and social events on offer such as Tango dance classes and local music.

The Naked Deli

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This place is perfect for gluten-free and all round super healthy food. There’s a selection of freshly made juices and smoothies on offer every day, with big breakfasts including GF pancakes and full English with grass-fed meats or a veggie option. They also do nutritious GF dairy-free raw cakes.

Tea Sutra

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This independent specialty teahouse offers a relaxing place in the centre of town with teas from around the world. Lunch is usually gluten free and vegan at a good price. Definitely worth a visit.

Bar Loco

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This international, colourful bar/ café in the centre of town is a great place to wind down and soak up some good vibes. Really friendly staff and an open welcoming atmosphere with quirky decor. I enjoyed a tastey gluten free pasta dish here with friends before a live music event.