For real bread lovers, giving up the loaf is one of the hardest changes to make when going gluten free. The smell, texture, crust, and crumb are impossible to replicate in gluten free versions, and the results can be disappointing.
So what to eat instead?
Here are 6 interesting and tasty naturally gluten free alternatives to bread…
Sweet potato toast – simple and ever so easy to make. Slice a sweet potato lengthways into 5mm thick slices. Pop them in a toaster or under the grill, and toast until golden and slightly crispy. Top with nut butter, butter, tuna mayonnaise, mashed sardines, poached egg…
Nori sheets bring some sushi flavours to your meal with nori wraps. Nori, like all sea vegetables, is rich in iodine, zinc, calcium, and magnesium, plus several different B-vitamins. It also contains fucans, a type of carbohydrate unique to sea vegetables that has anti-inflammatory and immune-supporting benefits. To use the nori sheets, lay them out flat and top with shredded vegetables, meat or fish, houmous, salad leaves, and maybe some pickles or sauerkraut. Or go full on sushi and make your own sushi rolls!
Socca – also called farinata, this is a simple flatbread made from chickpea (garbanzo) flour, oil, water, and a dash of salt. Add herbs and spices as you wish for extra flavour. There’s recipes available here and here.
Crackers – there’s so many to choose from now; rice ,corn, oat (make sure they are certified gluten free), buckwheat – we need never get bored with crackers again.
Flaxseed muffins – packed with fibre, protein, essential fats, and phytoestrogens, ground flax is your hormone-balancing friend. These muffins are ideal for breakfast or a light, balanced, snack. This recipe is from There Is Life After Wheat
Gluten free scones can be savoury or sweet, as these recipes from Jody Vassallo on the Jamie Oliver blog show. For the savoury version, if pumpkin isn’t in season try using mashed sweet potato or butternut squash instead.
Do you have a favourite gluten free alternative to bread? Let me know in the comments below or over on FB or Twitter!
One of the most important things I’ve learned from both naturopathic nutrition and Yoga is that every part of the body is connected. We are one big moving part. Nothing in the body exists in isolation. Gut, brain, heart, hormones, immunity, muscles, bones, lungs, liver, skin; every organ and system is communicating with one another.
Whether its via hormonal messages, nerve fibres, fascia, or microbial metabolites: communication is constant.
I recently had the pleasure of talking about these incredible interconnections for a podcast (more details to follow on this). The podcast focuses on the links between the gut, brain, hormone balance, and the immune system. I like to make notes before I do any kind of talk, so I drew a mind-map of the links between these areas. It ended up large and colourful…
And this is just the basic links, there are plenty more that wouldn’t fit on the page!
The Gut is the Foundation
The gut is always the first place to start when looking at a health issue. Whether its mental health, low immunity, hormone imbalance, or any kind of inflammation – look at the gut first. As the mind-map shows, this is where nutrient absorption takes place, and the elimination of waste (including old hormones). You can eat all the right foods and take top quality supplements, but if you’re not absorbing them well enough, or clearing out your waste each day, improvement will be very slow.
Our gut microbes (the microbiome) play a huge role in regulating our immune response, managing inflammation, and influencing mood. They communicate with the brain via the vagus nerve, the ‘super highway’ communication channel between gut and brain. Anything that upsets the microbiome – stress, infection, antibiotics – can affect mood and immunity.
Hormones are the chemical messengers zooming instructions around the body. When it comes to stress, cortisol is the main player. Ongoing high levels of cortisol can compromise our digestion making us more prone to gut problems like bloating, indigestion, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. It also affects immunity, increasing the risk of infections, and hampering recovery. If we don’t learn how to manage ongoing stress, our mental resilience starts to wear thin too. Eventually this can lead to anxiety, depression, and burn-out.
Fluctuating oestrogen levels during the pre-menstrual phase (PMS) and perimenopause can affect gut health and mental wellbeing. High levels of oestrogen can be a triggering factor for migraines and PMS, while low levels lead to different symptoms depending on which part of the brain is affected. For example hot flushes, one of the characteristic symptoms of perimenopause, are triggered when there isn’t enough oestrogen reaching the hypothalamus, our central temperature regulator. Too little oestrogen in the amygdala can lead to anxiety, which in turn increases our sense of feeling threatened and stressed and upregulates cortisol production.
Balancing the connections
If you can make out my scrawls on the diagram, you’ll notice there’s a lot of crossover between the nutrients that support each area – gut, mental health, hormones, and immunity. Including these nutrients on a daily basis supplies your body with the tools it needs to: – Build hormones – Manage inflammation – Maintain immune balance – Support neurotransmitters – Detoxify hormones – Nuture the gut microbiome
Food connects us with ourselves, and enables our internal communications to run smoothly.
If you’re dealing with symptoms in any of the areas mentioned on the diagram, look at your food choices and see where you can make some simple swaps to include more of these key nutrients. This table lists some of the top sources so you can mix and match and enjoy the variety…
Supporting Vagal tone
Alongside all these good foods, think about ways to incorporate more relaxation and mindfulness into your daily life. When we’re busy and stressed we are spending the majority of our time in the fight-flight-freeze response; the sympathetic nervous system. For our health, we need to balance this by switching to the parasympathetic response: rest-digest-heal. The vagus nerve plays a big role here, and anything that activates it will help. Taking a few slow deep breaths is the quickest and easiest way to do this because the brain thinks “ah, we can’t be in immediate danger, we’re breathing too slowly!” Singing is another good technique (not always practical in the middle of a work meeting though) and doing meditative movements such as yoga and Qi Gong.
Look at ways to fit pockets of relaxation time into your day. A short walk in the park at lunchtime, ten minutes of mindful meditation after work, taking 5 slow deep breaths before each meal – that sort of thing. The benefits of these little pockets soon builds up and you’ll feel calmer and more resilient.
Perimenopause is a different experience for each of us, yet there are several common themes and questions. Fortunately, nutrition and lifestyle medicine can be a big help at this time of transition. From hot flushes to anxiety and low mood, making changes to what we eat and how we live can make a powerful difference during perimenopause.
Q. My periods are getting heavier and I’m starting to experience a lot more irritability and anxiety. I’ve just turned 41 – could this be perimenopause?
A. Yes. Some of the first signs of perimenopause are changes to moods, period frequency, and/or period flow. These can start happening in your mid to late 30s. However, many women don’t notice this if they’re taking the Pill or using hormonal implants. Fluctuating oestrogen levels affect our brain just as much as the ovaries and womb lining. There are oestrogen receptors throughout the brain, and each area responds differently to changes in oestrogen levels. For example, if the amygdala doesn’t receive enough oestrogen we can feel more anxious and fearful. If the hypothalamus (our central temperature regulator) is affected we can experience hot flushes.
Try keeping track of your symptoms to see if they fit into any kind of monthly pattern. To help manage the anxiety. follow the tips below in the Q&A for Anxiety & Low Mood.
Heavy periods can increase your iron loss, so be mindful of regularly including iron-rich foods throughout your cycle:
– Haem iron (animal source) is the most bioavailable form for us to absorb and use, and is found in red meat, poultry, fish, and eggs. – Non-haem iron is found in animal foods too, and also in vegetables – especially dark green leafy veg; pulses, dried fruits, nuts, wholegrains, and Blackstrap molasses. Combine vitamin C rich foods with non-haem iron sources to aid absorption.
Q. My periods are incredibly painful and heavy and I don’t want to take the Pill or have a coil fitted. Do I have to put up with this until after menopause?
A. Symptoms like this can be a sign of fibroids or endometriosis. Both conditions are influenced by oestrogen and hormone fluctuations. During the early stages of perimenopause we can be in a temporary state of oestrogen dominance. Because we stop ovulating every month, there’s very little progesterone produced to counter-balance oestrogen. Unfortunately it can take months, even years, for fibroids or endometriosis to be diagnosed as many doctors fail to recognise how serious the symptoms are. Ask for a referral to a gynaecologist who will be able to offer the right support and testing. It will also be helpful to get your iron levels checked to make sure the heavy periods aren’t depleting your iron stores.
Q. Hot flushes are keeping me awake every night. I’m feeling exhausted all day, and having difficulty concentrating at work. What can I do?
A. Hot flushes are one of the most distressing perimenopausal symptoms. I can’t promise these tips will get rid of them completely but they can certainly reduce the severity and frequency:
– Minimise caffeine as much as possible. Avoid it altogether if you can! This means tea, coffee, energy drinks, and chocolate. And decaff versions too – sensitive people can react to the trace amounts of caffeine left in decaffeinated drinks.
– Keep your blood sugar levels balanced by eating within 2 hours of waking, replacing refined carbohydrates (white bread, white pasta, cakes, sweets, biscuits etc) with smaller portions of wholegrain versions, and only snacking if there’s a gap of more than 5hrs between meals.
– Try drinking sage tea or taking sage tablets or tincture. The A.Vogel ‘Menosan’ tablets and tincture are a licensed herbal remedy for managing hot flushes and sweats and can help with temperature regulation.
– Relax! Stress is a big trigger for hot flushes. We can’t always make stress go away but we can change how we respond to it. We can do this by building daily downtime into our schedules. This might mean going for a mindful walk, listening to music, following a guided meditation, doing crafts or creative writing, or simply soaking in a bath with essential oils. Mindful relaxation (as opposed to flopping in front of Netflix) is a great way to build our resilience to stress.
Anxiety & low mood
Q. Since starting perimenopause my moods have been really low. I feel anxious and depressed a lot of the time. I’m also really tired. Is this normal?
A. Mood swings and anxiety can be symptoms of perimenopause, but they can also be linked to other conditions. Have you had your thyroid checked? Depression and fatigue can be signs of an underactive thyroid. Many women start to experience thyroid issues around the time of menopause so it’s worth getting your thyroid hormome levels checked with your GP. Ask them to check your levels of TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone), T4 and T3 (thyroid hormones) and thyroid antibodies. The thyroid antibodies are important because an underactive thyroid may be due to auto-immunity. If your results come back positive for underactive thyroid see a Registered Nutritional Therapist for a personalised plan to support thyroid function.
If your thyroid is OK, look at ways to manage the anxiety and depression and low energy:
– Follow the blood sugar balancing tips (see previous Q&A) as poor blood sugar balance can worsen mood swings.
– Include at least 3 servings each day of foods rich in magnesium and B-vitamins such as avocado, sweet potato, nuts, seeds, dark green leafy vegetables, poultry, and eggs. These nutrients are vital for mood balance and energy levels.
– Make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Our brains need 7-9hrs each night, with at least 1 hr of that before midnight. Aim to be in bed by 10.30pm-11pm to give yourself the opportunity for a good rest.
– Include mindful relaxation time each day. Yoga, journalling, mediation, spending time outdoors in natural surroundings, and crafts are all known to be beneficial for managing depression and anxiety.
– Swap regular tea and coffee for herbal teas that soothe and support the nervous system. Lemon balm, chamomile, oat straw, valerian, and lavendar are good options.
Q. I’ve been told to eat phytoestrogens. What are they and where can I find them?
A. Phytoestrogens (phyto = plant) are naturally occurring substances found in fruits, vegetables, and grains. They have a similar effect to human oestrogen, but are hundreds and hundreds of times weaker. They’re not a hormone replacement therapy by any means. Instead, they have a modulating effect on our fluctuating oestrogen levels and may help reduce hot flushes and offer protection to our bones.
There are 3 types of phytoestrogens. The top food sources include:
Isoflavones found mainly in soybeans (edamame) and fermented soy products like tofu and miso. You can also find them in chickpeas, aduki beans, kidney beans, and red clover. Red clover seeds can be sprouted – try sprouting them alongside mung beans and alfalfa seeds.
Lignans flax seed is by far the richest source, followed by sesame seeds, broccoli, and cashew nuts.
Coumestans found in mung bean sprouts and alfalfa sprouts.
Q. Is soy safe to eat? I’ve read so many conflicting things about it!
A. Soy foods certainly are a controversial subject! Unfortunately a lot of the research done on soy uses raw soy extract – not the natural wholefoods recommended for perimenopausal women. The soy foods suggested for perimenopause are the fermented soy products like tofu and miso, and whole cooked soy beans. These foods are part of the traditional diet in Far Eastern countries where women have far fewer menopausal issues. Having said that, no food is entirely suitable for everyone, and some people find soy difficult to digest. If you have any concerns about soy, give yourself peace of mind and enjoy other phytoestrogen foods instead.
I hope you’ve found this Q&A helpful! Watch out for more updates on my forthcoming book “Perimenopause – The Natural Nutrition Guide: What to eat to feel good and stay sane” which will cover all these points and so much more.
Got more questions? Come and join the Facebook Group or follow my Facebook page – or join me on Twitter @nutritioninyork
Anxiety has been an unwanted companion of mine since childhood. From anxiety-induced stomach aches before school swimming lessons, to panic attacks while out shopping, anxiety has a big impact on my life experiences.
Over the years I’ve learned to take a two-pronged approach to anxiety. To manage it I use:
Speedy remedies like chewing on lemon balm leaves, drinking valerian tea, dosing up on Bach Rescue Remedy, and using Ashwagandha tincture each day whenever I’m in a particularly stressful phase.
Long term nutrition support. I regularly include foods that supply the vitamins and minerals my nervous system needs to manage anxiety and support mental wellbeing.
This 5-minute video covers 5 of my favourite foods for nervous system support. Each one is easy to find and easy to prep – there’s no weird ingredients or lengthy recipes here. I recommend including these on a regular basis and noticing how you feel. If you scroll on down past the video you’ll find some more ideas for foods and drinks that can help manage anxiety. All of these foods can be safely consumed alongside anxiety medications.
More Good Foods for Managing Anxiety
Fermented foods: let’s not forget the gut microbiome! Our gut flora produce important molecules that influence the nervous system and the production of mood chemicals.
One of these molecules is GABA (gamma amino-butyric acid). GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that calms the nervous system. Fermented foods contain the probiotic bacteria that produce GABA, and fibres to nourish other gut bacteria. In turn, this support a healthy environment in the gut, and continues the production of GABA.
Including a serving of fermented foods each day is a great way to top up and fertilise your microbiome. Choose from:
Sauerkraut: available from healthfood stores and some supermarkets (avoid the pasteurised versions as the bacteria die off during pasteurisation) or make your own
Kefir: milk kefir, water kefir, coconut water kefir – there’s plenty of different varieties. Again, you can make this at home with some starter granules
Plain live natural yoghurt
Keen to try home fermenting? I can heartily recommend this book. It’s packed with tips and has easy-to-follow instructions – perfect for new fermenters!
Quick and easy to make, a warm mug of tea is a soul-soother in itself. Although for anxious people, it does need to be caffeine free – there’s no wriggle room on that! This is because even decaffeinated versions of tea can contain enough caffeine to stimulate the stress response and aggravate anxiety.
Herbs offer some wonderful infusions for anxiety. Try these teas either as single-herb teas or in combinations. For example, chamomile and lemon balm blend well together: