The short story: In a recent visit to my naturopath and after having had some testing done, I found out I’ve got a strong sensitivity to spinach and have to lay off it for the next 6-8 months. What?? I know, crazy right? Here’s the longer story…
If you follow me on Instagram, you may have spotted a photo I posted last week announcing that kale would be my new best friend. I’d just been to see my naturopath, who recently did an allergy test for me. The results were in, and apparently I have 2 ‘severe sensitivities’: crab (which I can deal with), and spinach. Wheat and gluten were identified as well, but those weren’t news to me. As far as spinach goes, this could be amazing news for any veggie hater out there who needs legit excuses as to why they refuse to eat it. But for someone who LOVES it, this was pretty tragic.
Although I didn’t think it was even possible to be sensitive to such a glorious superfood, part of me wasn’t surprised. Without getting into details, my digestion has been totally out of whack lately and I figured it was a result of switching iron supplements. (Yes, that same issue I started struggling with in May is still ongoing – I’m as anaemic as it gets, but my naturopath is on a mission to help me out with that.) All this time, I figured my spinach intake could only be helping to boost my iron levels. But as much as I love my green smoothies in the morning, they hadn’t been making me feel as ready to take on the world as they usually do.
So what’s going on?
There’s some very detailed science that explains what’s happening inside of me, which is known as leaky gut. (If you’re really interested, this blog post explains it well.) The very quick version is as follows:
- There’s a single layer of cells that lines the entire wall of the small intestine, which act as the barrier between your digesting food, your immune system, and your internal space
- After being ‘screened’ and gradually passing through this cell layer, the particles of digesting food are introduced to the immune system
- BUT if the gut is attacked in some way (and yes, this includes through repeated exposure to foods that you’re sensitive to), that cell layer changes, all sorts of inflammation happens, and gaps are created between the cells. This means that bits of food can immediately move inside, directly exposing itself to the immune system, rather than being gradually assimilated (which is what the cell layer does when it’s healthy)
- The immune system then starts going crazy, producing lots of antibodies to try and combat the unfamiliar bits of food coming in, and this leads to more inflammation, more destroying of those lining cells, and bigger gaps. Not cool.
If you like analogies, think of the bits of partially digested food as people, the cell wall like airport security, and the immune system like the airplane. When you go to the airport, people aren’t allowed to get on the airplane without passing through security. If someone tried, there’d probably be all sorts of alarms going off and people chasing them down. Likewise, the bits of food aren’t normally allowed to get to the immune system without passing ‘cell wall security’. When they do, the inflammation alarms go off and the gut starts going crazy.
All this talk about inflammation seemed a bit odd me – I’m a really really clean eater. I make efforts to incorporate anti-inflammatory foods like ginger and turmeric in my diet on a daily basis (like in my favourite post-workout recovery smoothie.) I can’t remember the last time I ate fast food and avoid foods high in sugar and refined ingredients. About 80% of my grocery shopping is done around the perimeter of the store. How could things possibly be so inflamed?
Did too much spinach really cause the problem?
I don’t claim to be an expert on this at all, and to be honest, I still have some questions myself. Leaky gut can be caused by a bunch of things:
- Diet – Not only by foods that are refined and processed, but also by those that contain chemicals that the body sees as toxic.
- Yeast overgrowth/candida – We’ve ruled this out in my case.
- Stress – Definitely a possible culprit
- Medication – These can be rough on the intestines and cause inflammation (I haven’t been on any.)
- Other inflammation
Based on the above, my guess is that this situation was caused by a combo of stress and too much spinach, specifically the oxalic acid inside which is a toxin (more about that in a second).
So how can it be fixed?
In addition to a bunch of supplements my naturopath has me on to help restore those intestine-lining cells to their usual function, I’ve completely eliminated spinach from my diet. Her prediction is that after 3 months of absolutely zero spinach (and the assistance of a plethora of supplements), things should be nearly healed. At that point, I can slowly re-introduce it if I want to. I feel like my kitchen cupboard has become a pharmacy, but am confident about this as I’m already starting to feel a bit better. This doesn’t mean the end of green smoothies though – it just means I’ll be making a much bigger effort to rotate my greens.
Rotating greens? What’s that?
When I first started getting into green smoothie drinking, I knew this was important. It’s common sense – a varied diet with many foods of different colours ensures that we get a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals. When it comes to greens, kale, chard, collards, cabbage, broccoli, romaine, and arugula are regulars in my kitchen. Spinach however, is definitely the one used most. It’s incredibly versatile, almost tasteless in a green smoothie, and full of nutrients. BUT, just as is the case with any food, it is possible to get too much of a good thing. And despite knowing all of this, it appears this leaky gut thing has been caused by a bit of a spinach overdose. When I think about my smoothies and green juices, I was using enormous quantities.
Greens are great – but they also contain toxins.
No, I don’t mean the toxins that may have been sprayed on the leaves during growth or en-route to your grocery store, although those shouldn’t be ignored either. I’m referring to the little amounts of toxins that are naturally present in leafy greens, which when consumed in excess, can have negative impacts on the thyroid gland. Spinach contains oxalic acid, and it is believed that too much can cause problems with the kidneys and gall bladder. Oxalic acid can be found in a bunch of other foods too, but not normally in large enough amounts to be harmful (and you can reduce it through cooking.) Similarly, other leaves contain other toxins in small amounts. Therefore, it’s really important to know how to rotate greens to prevent build-up of these substances.
How to mix it up
The great news is that this doesn’t take a ton of effort or concentration – just make sure you’re buying different greens each week! There are heaps to choose from, some more strong in taste than others. I’ve found lately that I can combine smaller amounts of kale (strong tasting) with larger amounts of romaine (more mild) and still make many of my existing smoothie recipes without altering the other ingredients.
Think of greens as 4 families: the brassicas (cruciferous veg), amaranthacaea, asteraceae, and apiaceae. (And no, don’t ask me to pronounce all of those.) Here’s a little chart I made that you can reference. Print it and keep it on your fridge, or pin it if you like!
You want to ensure that you’re not always choosing leaves in the same greens family week after week. For example, eating kale and collards all the time wouldn’t be a great idea, but alternating a week of kale and collards with a week of spinach and romaine would be awesome. Variety for the win! 😉
So tell me…
- Do you make an effort to mix up the greens in your diet on a regular basis?
- Do you have any strange allergies or food sensitivities?