Digestive Disorders and Eating Disorders: A Complicated Mix
Several years into my work as a nutrition therapist I found myself really grappling with a clinical dilemma. Many of my clients were not only suffering from an eating disorder but they were also suffering from pretty severe digestive issues. And these digestive issues were not only complicating their recovery but they were seriously impacting my clients’ quality of life. In fact, many clients who had made tremendous strides in their eating disorder recovery were suffering with digestive symptoms that other clinicians had promised would go away once they got better from their ED.
So I delved into the research, participated in a year long integrative nutrition therapy training, exchanged supervision with colleagues who specialize in digestive health, attended workshops, and I thought A LOT. In fact, I want to make a big shout out to my friend and colleague Lauren Dear who is an amazing digestive health dietitian and has taught me so much.
All of this study (and continued study!) led to a series of talks on the intersection of EDs and digestive disorders that I have given and presented, plus the development of a training course on this very topic. For now, I’d like to share some juicy tidbits!
Critical Research Nuggets: Digestive disorders and eating disorders
- Up to 98% of clients with eating disorders have a functional gut disorder (FGD) (Note: FGDs are things like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, gatric reflux, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea (to name a few).
- People who suffer from FGDs and EDs share the same underlying mental health challenges- namely anxiety and depressive disorders
- These mental health challenges can lead to digestive symptoms that can perpetuate long after the ED symptoms have resolved
- EDs can actually cause FGDs and FGDs can make a person vulnerable to the development of an ED. This means it is BOTH the chicken and the egg.
- Childhood GI issues are a key risk factor for the later development of an ED
- Both EDs and FGDs negatively impact body image. A person who suffers from both has a double whammy to contend with!
- Anorexia Nervosa changes the gut microbiome by deceasing bacterial diversity. Lower numbers of bacterial diversity are associated with greater levels of eating disorder psychopathology.
Specific Concerns for the ED Population
Traditionally, medical providers and dietitians have encouraged an elimination diet of some kind to treat these enduring and often puzzling symptoms. However, eliminating foods is really the opposite of the goal of nutrition therapy for EDs. Restriction, even if medically indicated, complicates ED recovery. In my personal experience, I have seen well-intended clients/practitioners advocate for an elimination protocol that has led to full blown relapse. So what are we to do as clinicians who feel desperate to help our clients fully recover and treat any concomitant digestive health concerns? I have a few take home points for you to consider.
Key Take Home Messaging
There are many non-harmful interventions to try with clients.
Most if not all behavioral interventions that support ED recovery will also support digestive health. Root out remaining ED behaviors as most will reinforce negative GI symptoms.
- Sensitive systems require CONSISTENCY & BALANCE.
- A stressed out person will likely have a stressed out gut. Help clients embrace hypnotherapy, meditation, deep breathing, guided relaxation.
- The relationship between head brain and gut brain is REAL!
- Food variety improves the gut microbiome and is a key ingredient to ED recovery.
- The goal is to include as many foods as possible for mental, emotional, and psychological well-being.
- Integrate the use of digestive enzymes, probiotics, and well-researched supplements to help manage symptoms.
- Fuel healthy bacteria by integrating fermented foods and drinks.
- Incorporate a stool or squatty potty for more anatomically supported elimination (ie the squat position makes it way easier to poop!).
- Eliminate “diet foods” as they contain a lot of additives that worsen digestive symptoms and are often a culprit in the ED
- Play with changing the texture of foods rather than eliminating them all together
One Last Request
Training Program for Clinicians
If you want to bring more to your clients with digestive issues, Lauren Dear and I have teamed up and developed an online training to build your confidence working with those challenging clients who have eating disorders and digestive disorders.
You can learn more about the course, Digestive Disorders & Eating Disorders: A Complicated Mix on my Food and Body Image Healers Training Institute.
Such a fascinating topic, Marci! My personal experience with an ED and most recently autoimmune illness (that I’ve been healing with functional medicine interventions, including removing triggering foods, like corn, from my food choices) has made this intersection very real and concerning to me. I’ve become hyper aware of how easily a relapse can happen when going down this road but, fortunately, have not had a relapse of my ED. Is your online course open to professions other than RDs? I’m a personal trainer and yoga instructor…
Given your mention of using a multi-pronged approach to gut healing, including techniques around stress reduction/resilience, you might be interested in an approach I use as one intervention for that with belly massage, using a soft/squishy massage ball. It’s one of my favourite practices for myself and daughter (who sometimes struggles with anxiety). I’d be happy to share the link with you here or email it to you, with your permission.
In any event, please keep doing what you’re doing. I appreciate your dialogue around these intersections. So helpful.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. My course will be open to anyone and everyone who is interested but geared towards helping professionals. That definitely includes you. 🙂 You should feel really proud of the fact that you have kept your recovery steady while working really hard to find a pattern of eating that allows you to feel well. This is SUCH a hard thing to do. I would really really love to learn about the belly massage. Please post a link here in the comments!
Thanks for such an interesting and informative post! As a future RD who is recovering from orthorexia, your blog and information is always so helpful!
Just a quick question. You mentioned using “digestive enzymes, probiotics, and well-researched supplements to help manage symptoms.” Do you have any specific supplements or probiotics that you would recommend? Or any resources to help determine what supplements/probiotics would be useful?
Please put me on your list for this online training !! Would love more
Tools for helping clients. Thank you for sharing and all your work!
Hey Megan! I’m so sorry for my delay in getting back to you. I somehow missed your comment in my inbox. You question is excellent. One of my absolute favorite resources is the app “Clinical Guide to Probiotic Products US Edition.” It’s an incredible research based tool to guide choosing a probiotic. I also highly recommend Iberogast as a safe herbal supplement to try for IBS-like symptoms and Natural Calm is another favorite for constipation. Those are a handful of my favorites!!
You got it Katie!! Thanks so much for your sweet note. 🙂
Thanks for your reply Marci and encouragement! I’m so happy you’re interested in the belly massage. Here’s the video I mentioned, with my daughter demo-ing the practice:
Would love to hear your thoughts!
Can’t wait to check it out and practice myself Michelle!!
This post just makes me want to sing! Not only do some healthcare providers try to convince you it’s “all in your head”, YOU then end up trying to convince yourself that it is all in your head.
Sing away Megan! I couldn’t agree more. Often, GI issues get written off as someone being dramatic or crazy. My hope is to empower clinicians and patients with real info so they can advocate for their needs!
I relate so strongly to this! Hard to keep all things balanced. My digestive diseases played a part on promoting disordered eating and the intuitive eating book also refers so fear through nutrition. The key is open mindedness and being really self aware. Excellent write up!
Hey Rachel, I’m so glad this post resonated for you. I totally agree- staying present and self-aware is critical because learning how to take care of both issues simultaneously is just so tough! Thanks for sharing your personal experience and sending all my best. 🙂
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