Why having an eating disorder sucked: Part 2

I’m just gonna say it: Constipation.

As someone who grew up listening to Avril Lavigne, I learned at around thirteen years of age that the correct way to sing the chorus for ‘Complicated’ is, in fact, “Why’d you have to go and make things so constipated?”

Yes, eating disorder, why??

Because of my irregular eating habits, I was severely constipated for years. As you can imagine, this was incredibly uncomfortable. I had no idea that it was related to under-nutrition — in fact, I was convinced that I needed to eat even more kale and drink even more black coffee to get things moving (for the record, this didn’t work). Not to get into too much detail, but sometimes I went over a month without a poop.

…Yeah, not good.

I was drinking dandelion tea every day and trying all kinds of laxatives — nope.

The other gastrointestinal symptom that bothered me was getting full very quickly. I remember going to lunch once and being full from exactly 1 piece of sushi. Even when I tried to re-feed myself by setting calorie minimums for the day, I would get nauseous and be unable to take in more food. This inadvertantly fueled my eating behaviors, and helped me “prove” to myself (and concerned others) that I simply wasn’t hungry. I’d snap defensively, “I don’t want to eat because I’m honoring my natural hunger cues!” True, but my hunger cues were no where near natural or healthy – they had gone into hiding, defeated by years of being ignored. (This doesn’t mean I was never hungry: sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night with unbearable & piercing hunger that I can only describe as ‘primal’ – and I don’t mean paleo).

So, what the heck was going on body-wise? It turns out that a condition called gastroparesis that can help to explain things. Gastroparesis literally means “paralysis of the stomach”. It is also known as “delayed stomach emptying”. It’s a major traffic jam. Gastroparesis is practically universal whenever there is severe caloric restriction (source). As your body tries its best to conserve energy, your digestive system starts slowing down. Moreover, since food intake is inadequate, your wonderfully smart body holds on to whatever food there is for longer, so that more nutrients can be absorbed.

The fallout: unpleasant GI symptoms.

Gastroparesis can make recovery very difficult. For someone who has an eating disorder, the idea of eating more is already terrifying, and having GI discomfort can be a big roadblock. This was the case for me. Shortly after I started working with a Registered Dietitian (RD) who specialized in eating disorder recovery, I started feeling sicker. I was nauseous and bloated and all kinds of miserable and absolutely convinced that I needed to STOP recovery and go back to my restrictive diet, which involved staying under the daily nutritional requirements of a toddler. I’m grateful that I had the professional support and medical monitoring from a specialized PCP to keep going in a way that was safe for my body.

The good news? Full nutritional rehabilitation usually results in 100% restoration of normal bowel moments. My husband and I often compete for the bathroom in the morning. When I struggle in recovery and start to miss my smaller body, I think about how my GI system lets me know (in no uncertain terms!) that it is thriving and happy now that it is being fed appropriately.

I’m not even touching on the very trendy ~gut-brain connection~ here because I don’t have anything definitive to share, but it wouldn’t shock me at all if it turned out that major disturbances in the gut and disturbances in mental and emotional health were intertwined. One more reason to prioritize (or be grateful for) a happy gut 🙂

Why having an eating disorder sucked: Part 1

Hi again! I’m writing a several-part series on why having an eating disorder sucked for me. I don’t know how many parts there will be (because it sucked in so many ways), but here is part 1 🙂

Disclaimer: this was only my experience; everyone’s lived experience is different. However, I think it’s safe to say that eating disorders universally suck! Even if you don’t feel like you have a clinical eating disorder, one study showed that sixty-five percent of American women report disordered eating of some sort (source). Having an unhealthy relationship with food is practically the norm. I hope that sharing my experience helps to shed some light on how devastating and completely un-glamorous it is to struggle chronically with food and body image.

With that out of the way, here’s the first thing that came to mind when I thought about why having an ED was horrible: Being freezing cold all the time.

For years, I had ‘ice fingers’ – even in the heat of summer. It wasn’t very nice to hold hands with me either on a date or if you were next to me in an awkward group prayer. I remember crying in bed one night because I was just so cold in spite of my ensemble of Uniqlo Heattech gear and duvet covers.

When your body isn’t getting enough fuel, your brain goes into survival mode and tries to figure out how to conserve energy so that your body can continue to support vital functions – like keeping your heartbeat going. One major way to save precious energy is by lowering your core body temperature. That’s why you can feel abnormally cold all the time.

For the most part I dismissed this as a sort of personality trait of mine – “Oh, I’m just constantly cold.” But what really broke my heart was when I noticed that babies would recoil from my touch and cry when I held them. Yikes! Poor babies. When I nannied, I would try to blow on my hands before touching them. This made me realize that something was a little off – bodies are supposed to be welcoming and nurturing and safe for little ones.

When I went through recovery and starting eating much, much more (like 5-10 times more) my body actually started radiating heat – the air around me would feel warm! I felt like a furnace! After several months, my metabolism calmed down a little and I’ve noticed that my body hardly feels distressingly cold anymore (except in a Philly sub-zero snow storm).

 

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week

Today marks the last day of National Eating Disorders Awareness week. This is close to my heart — I’ve walked through recovery with a team of professionals, and am acutely aware of how much chaos and disruption an eating disorder can bring. A general lack of education among both sufferers and their communities makes the recovery journey even harder. Here are some myths about eating disorders that I encourage you to challenge:

MYTH 1. Eating disorders only affect a certain type of person – typically white, female, young, thin, upper-middle class. Media representations have perpetuated this stereotype and even glamorized the illness. Eating disorders affect people from all sorts of backgrounds and with all kinds of body shapes. Never feel like you cannot seek help because you aren’t thin enough, or don’t fit into a certain profile. Check out this article.

MYTH 2. Eating disorders are a choice, or a type of attention-seeking behavior. Research shows that eating disorders arise when someone genetically predisposed to certain physiological behaviors experiences a situational trigger. This has to do with a different set-up of the brain’s reward system in conjunction with certain personality traits such as perfectionism. Don’t take my word for it — look at the research.

MYTH 3. Eating disorders are just diets and are not that serious. Extreme dieting is an ED behavior, but they are NOT the same thing. An eating disorder is a psychological illness. Often, the sufferer has lost the capacity to stop restrictive or compensatory behaviors well beyond the point of reason or health. They can’t “break the circuit”, even though they very often want to. This is because their brain is rewarding them for behaviors that are harmful and compulsive. As a side note, diets are terrible too…but they’re not necessarily EDs. More information here.

MYTH 4. Eating disorder sufferers can never fully recover. Untrue! The brain is amazing and has the capacity to re-wire itself. However, this almost always requires professional help from dietitians, therapists, and medical professionals. A big component of an eating disorder is deception, both of others and of self — it’s hard to be objective when you have gotten so good at denying what is happening in your body/mind. Read more in this article.

Finally, I want to link to some resources that I find very helpful: here, here, here, here. Nothing beats having a treatment team and getting the proper care that you need, but hopefully these resources can be a good stepping stone to full recovery.