Bloating and other Stomach Probs in Recovery
I have yet to meet someone in recovery that has NOT experienced digestive issues. Bloating and other stomach problems are a very common part of the process, but can definitely be healed! In today's post, I am sharing why you may be experiencing certain symptoms as well as what actions you can take to reduce them.
One of the most common questions I get asked from people struggling, or who have struggled with disordered eating is how to combat bloating as well as several other digestive issues. Examples of such issues are gas, diarrhea, constipation, acid reflux, frequent bowel movements, indigestion, and feeling overly full. Being someone who has experienced every single one of these, I feel ya! Stomach issues are NOT fun and can be rather painful, especially in such a tough and sensitive time when you feel like you're already working f*cking hard on all the mental stuff!
But I am here to tell you that you are not weird or different or crazy for feeling the way you do; I've been in your shoes. I've gone through it and come out stronger and healthier, with so much more knowledge about the human body than I had before. Whatever you're going through is valid, and whatever you're feeling around it is valid, too! YOU ARE VALID. Remember that always. But your eating disorder, or whatever it tells you about what's happening and changing in your body, is not. That's a really important distinction I had to make in accepting the discomfort and pushing through with full recovery, even when it felt impossible.
What causes stomach issues in recovery?
I remember when I started eating normal amounts of food after my first long period of restriction. I was put on a meal plan with exchanges in the hospital, and was told that the quicker I would get healthy vitals again, the quicker I could get out; so that's exactly what I did. I am grateful that I never had to experience any type of force feeding such as the tube, as I can imagine that must be an incredibly traumatic experience...the idea of force feeding seemed so scary to me that I always did everything I could to avoid it, even if this meant eating everything that was put in front of me.
But this definitely does not take away how incredibly HARD it was to start eating again. I had been living off of apples and single slices of bread and vegetables for the last couple of months, so it's an absolute understatement to say my body was NOT used to normal portions. I would feel SO incredibly full after finishing a meal, so full to the point where I felt I would vomit did I take another bite!
Aside from feeling overly full during the weight-gain process, this fullness seemed to last FOREVER. I would eat breakfast and I could feel full until dinner time! Of course, I didn't have the chance as there were meals and snacks planned between this large block of time, but there was a reason for that. When you restrict food for a prolonged period of time, your body goes into starvation mode and will slow down any processes that cost energy. Your heart rate slows, you feel tired, cold, and weak...your body is trying to do everything it can to conserve energy!
A weakened digestive system
We, as mammals, need fuel to function. Just like a car needs enough gas to drive and a battery needs enough charge to work, our bodies need enough food to perform (and by perform, I mean simply perform vital processes such as pumping blood, regulating metabolism, and just working properly!) Just like any other process in the body, digestion costs a lot of energy. If your body is not receiving that energy, your stomach and intestines cannot work properly: gastric emptying, or the emptying of contents from the stomach, will slow down.
In order for your digestive system to work again, you need to train it to work again: your digestive system needs to know there's an ACTUAL REASON to digest, and this reason is the presence of food! What's also key in proper digestion is healthy gut bacteria. When you are restricting your intake and do not have enough variety in your diet, you create an imbalance in your microbiome, which leads to a reduced ability to break down nutrients. Just like eating more is important in training your digestive system, eating a VARIETY of foods is just as key!
Aside from a weakened digestive system, your stomach itself is also weakened after prolonged periods of restriction. Known as Functional Dyspepsia, the elasticity of the stomach decreases which can result in quickly feeling full, bloated, and experiencing abdominal discomfort when you start eating (more) again. This system too, you have to train! The stomach will accommodate and gain back its function to stretch if it has a reason to; when it receives food!
The mental part
Whereas the healing of digestive issues may seem purely physical, it's just as much a mental game. For most of us struggling with disordered eating, eating more (or at all!) causes us a lot of anxiety. When we are anxious, we are in our sympathetic nervous system, the same system that activates the fight-or-flight response. We are not designed to digest while in our sympathetic nervous system, as all of our energy is to be used for survival mechanisms when activated. Just imagine being chased by a wild animal; all your body needs to focus on is RUNNING or getting AWAY from this danger, it doesn't have time to be focusing on digestion!
So next time you sit down to eat, make sure you get into your parasympathetic nervous system. Take slow, deep breaths and remember that food is something that will NOURISH you instead of HURT you.
For a long time, I was convinced that I was intolerant to several different foods. Gluten, dairy, eggs...they were all on the ‘bad’ food list. I told myself i was intolerant to them so that i wouldn’t need to fight a mental battle of whether or not to eat them. By putting them on the bad list, I could simply push those foods aside and eat all the foods i deemed ‘safe’.
The funniest part is that when I DID eat these so-called ‘bad’ foods, I actually experienced all the symptoms of an intolerance to them. I did endless research on possible symptoms for each ‘food intolerance’ and as my stomach pains, poor digestion, and headaches perfectly matched what I found online, my conclusions became further confirmed.
When I finally made the choice to pursue recovery FOR REAL, I started asking myself a lot of questions. one of these was HOW IN THE HECK I could be intolerant to all these foods while having been able to tolerate them perfectly fine my whole life. Truth is, I was never intolerant at all. the BELIEF that I couldn’t eat these foods was directly triggering my body to react to them negatively.
Think about it: if you wake up saying you’re going to have a bad day, you’re most definitely going to have a bad day. This is no different. If you tell yourself food is going to harm you, it will. Only once i started seeing food as NOURISHMENT vs POISON, all my symptoms faded away. Because that is exactly what food is! Nourishment. And it’s meant to be enjoyed
Soothing your symptoms
Just as in life, there's a lot that's beyond our control during the recovery process: thoughts, how our body reacts, and the time it takes to achieve a certain aspect of recovery (such as a shift in mental state or getting your period back). Although it's really easy to throw your hands in the air and give up and feel helpless when you're uncomfortable, you have the RESPONSIBILITY to recover. And with this responsibility, comes stepping out of your comfort zone and doing things that are scary (or rather, your eating disorder finds scary!).
Doing things such as changing the way you eat and allowing your body to change are hard AF. Trust me, I know! But once you face your fears and do the things, a whole new world opens up for you. One that you perhaps, didn't even know existed. One that perhaps, you thought you were INCAPABLE of creating for yourself...but that world is there, waiting for you to pave the path towards it. Everyone has their own journey and must learn what works for them, but below I have outlined some ways in which you can reduce stomach bloating and discomfort.
Eat regularly + adequately: this is probably definitely the most important part of healing your gut! Like I mentioned above, your body will slow down any processes--including digestion and metabolism--if there is no adequate nutrition to fuel these processes. You need to re-train your system to properly + effectively digest food by eating!
Cut down on the fruits + vegetables: SAY WHAT?! I thought fruits and vegetables were healthy!? Yes, they are! But healthy is such a relative term and is truly the last thing you should be focussing on while healing your mind and body. If you take a plate of broccoli and a plate of mac n' cheese, most people will say the plate of broccoli is 'healthier'. But for a poor body that is in malnutrition? The plate of mac n' cheese is most definitely the better option! One of my biggest behaviors during my ED was to load up on fruits and vegetables (this is very common especially when on a vegan/plant-based diet), but this was just another way in which I was restricting myself. The high amount of fiber and volume sure helps keep you full, but it's not what your poor tummy needs right now. Plus, I'm willing to bet it's not satisfying what you REALLY want! ;)
Avoid artificial sweeteners: eating foods ridden with fake sugars and additives was a way in which I tried to 'satisfy my sweet tooth' by restricting. I was too afraid of eating a real cookie or candy bar that I would eat protein bars that mimicked the flavor. But just like with the vegetables, these protein bars often contain loads and loads of fiber as well as artificial sweeteners that our bodies cannot digest. And what happens when we can't digest? Bloating and discomfort! I love adding maca and lucuma powder to smoothies, oats, and baked goods as they add a natural sweetness and don't upset my tum. They also have tons of other health benefits, such as balancing hormones and improving immunity.
Use the 'nourish not punish' approach: get yourself into your parasympathetic nervous system and approach food as a means to nourish yourself instead of convincing yourself it will hurt you. This is mind-over-matter to the max: if you say it will hurt you, it probably will. If you say it will nourish you, it will! Take deep breaths and repeat this mantra a couple of times before eating.
Wear comfortable clothes: I mentioned this in my Coping with Weight Gain post a while back, but it's just as applicable here. Wearing super tight clothes causes tension around the stomach area which I have found can contribute to bloating! Plus, it's hard NOT to focus on our stomachs when we're wearing something that's practically digging into it, haha!
Give yourself grace: There's a lot of repair work that needs to be done, and this takes time. Don't expect everything to change immediately and don't put yourself down for being upset about it. Bloating is NORMAL for anyone and there is no 'magic cure', whatever the internet says. You don't need to go on a cleanse or drink celery juice or restrict...in fact, this will just send you back to square one and you'll have to start the process all over again! Restricting may give you temporary relief, but in the long run you're just doing more damage and making it harder for your digestive system (and your entire body!) to trust you again.
I hope this post helped you gain insight into what may be causing your discomfort and perhaps gave you some ideas to relieve it! I'd love to hear your thoughts and as always, appreciate any positive feedback or support you have for me. Are there any tips you have that I did not mention in this post? Let me know in the comments below! 👇🏻
Want answers to the top 10 questions about Extreme Hunger?
Download your free guide!