What can you do when something bothers your digestion? This is an important question, as there are sure a lot of people with food allergies and sensitivities right now. One logical, initial step is to work to identify what it is that is bothering you (food diaries and allergy elimination diets work well for this). Then, when you have confirmed that something is a problem you should make sure that we are not eating it in excess. Sometimes it is even necessary to eliminate it from your diet completely. This gets to be a little bit of a complicated issue because, more and more, as we eliminate certain foods from the diet (like gluten) other foods tend to take a larger part of what we take in (like corn). Blood testing for antibodies, skin testing for reactions, and muscle testing are all important tools too. But then what do you do with the information? When we take something out of our diet, does that mean we can never eat it again? Or, if we cut it out of our diet for a while so that the gut can heal, what can we do to support ourselves, so that we are better able to work it through when we try to reintroduce it down the road? If our only strategy is avoidance, then we can paint ourselves into a dietary corner. I have worked with people who become so sensitive that they can count all of the tolerable foods they eat on two hands. That becomes very limiting, nutritionally, and also socially. Sometimes that is necessary (I would say for a certain period of time), but there must be more options than that.
Sometimes we need to not just back away, but keep working with what is a challenge. This is not to say that we should suffer—chronic food allergies are very real and can be devastating—but encounter matters. And a lot of anthroposophic work with digestion is about stimulating and strengthening our own intrinsic activities for fully breaking down food. Then working with allergy becomes not just about avoidance, but also about greater digestive capacities. Now what, you might ask, actually started this particular train of thought? Well, a recently published study showed that for families who hand wash their dishes instead of using an automatic dishwasher there is an associated reduced rate of allergic illnesses.[i] How can this be? The researchers believe that dishwashers make the plates too clean, whereas handwashing leaves some food traces and bacteria, and it is that repeated encounter of working with bacteria that helps the immune system recognize and process those very bacteria, which over the long term can balance and strengthen our immune function. Similar patterns are seen in other studies as well, as children who grow up on farms have lower allergy rates,[ii] children who work through childhood inflammations have lower allergy rates,[iii] and, perhaps surprisingly, children who are higher risk of peanut allergy have lower rates of peanut allergy down the road if they are exposed to the peanut-containing foods earlier in life.[iv]
So, a possible take home message to think about: it is not good to be abused by what it hurting us, and at the same time, it is not good to avoid everything in life that could hurt us. Some balance is important. We become stronger (and on many levels healthier) by making sure there are still some thickets to trudge through. And worrying a little less about spotless dishes might open up some time for other activities. Happy washing.