The 10th of October is World Mental Health Day, a perfect opportunity to bring up the complex subject of eating disorders. Many affected try various therapies or take psychotropics for many years, yet the disorder never leaves. It can be managed to some degree, often just to satisfy the close ones, but the person may continue to live in the shadow of its controlling demon forever.
One of the possible reasons why eating disorders continue lies in an incomplete treatment. This can prevent the person from improving and most importantly, WANTING to get better. What’s more, a conventional dietary approach can even induce relapses. Below I will discuss some of the physiological (and often dismissed) aspects of eating disorders.
What is an eating disorder?
Eating disorders are defined as “mental disorders marked by an obsession with food or body shape”. They include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, orthorexia, avoidant/restricting eating disorder, and others.
The important question is, what are the mental causes of eating disorders? Not everyone who has suffered trauma or has low self-esteem develops an eating disorder. Something else must come to the equation, and I believe it is multiple physiological imbalances. Psychological aspects are often just a trigger and not the root cause.
Impaired digestion, gut toxicity, deficiencies and dysglycaemia
All of my clients with eating disorders have some sort of digestive issue that started before developing the disorder. It can range from IBS (diarrhoea/constipation), indigestion, bloating, acid reflux, heartburn, no desire to eat meat.
This is an indication that gut microbes are out of balance and food is not broken down properly, which can lead to uncontrollable sugar cravings, an increased production of toxins, ‘leaky gut’, and poor absorption of nutrients.
As the eating disorder starts and continues, digestion is compromised further. Eating processed carbohydrates causes a blood sugar roller coaster which perpetuates binging, and damages gut microflora even more. It’s a vicious cycle.
The most common deficiencies include amino acids from protein breakdown, fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, B vitamins, magnesium and zinc, all key for mental health. Strong zinc deficiency can lead to picky eating, where the smell, taste and texture of certain foods may become very unappealing. Plenty becomes vegetarians or vegans but because plant foods are mostly carbohydrates, they are prone to more deficiencies and constantly swinging blood glucose levels.
Neurotransmitter imbalance-‘leaky brain’
‘Leaky gut’ can eventually lead to a ‘leaky brain’. Undigested proteins and microbial toxins can escape through the ‘leaks’ and affect mood, behaviour and perception.
Moreover, as a result of improper digestion of proteins and gut degeneration, one can become low in serotonin and dopamine. Low serotonin can contribute to depressive episodes, and low dopamine can trigger feelings of worthlessness and inability to handle stress or process trauma. Addictive and obsessive behaviour acts on dopamine which can numb anxiety – a common pattern in eating disorders.
Proteins and fats are also required to build hormones which affect metabolism, sleep, emotions and stress response. Without the building blocks and with a concurrent frequent intake of processed carbohydrates, one can be anxious or put on weight quickly when not restricting food – a frequent cause why eating disorders keep relapsing.
Gluteomorphins and casomorphins (exorphins)
Inability to fully break down dairy protein ‘casein’ and grain protein ‘gluten’ can turn them into opiates which act like morphine. They are able to attach to serotonin and dopamine receptors and induce obsessive behaviour.
This is a possible reason why people with eating disorders often crave addictive foods like baked goods, starch, bananas and dairy. They are also called ‘exorphins’ (external endorphins, coming from the outside of the body) – substances which give a feeling of positive ‘hit’, inducing addictive behaviour.
What to do?
A conventional dietary approach often focuses on either calorie, portion control or generalised ‘healthy eating’ guidelines (what are these anyway?), and not necessarily on nutrient density or individual food triggers.
This can perpetuate feeding pathogenic microbes, inducing blood sugar swings and hormonal and neurotransmitter imbalances, all of which are the driving force behind eating disorders.
I believe that the treatment should be multidisciplinary, with psychotherapy and other complementary disciplines applied at the same time. Dietary changes should be implemented in stages, taking into consideration individual physiological symptoms, and not just the eating disorder itself. It should be a truly restorative, therapeutic diet:
- Enhancing digestion, microbial diversity and absorption should play a central role in nutritional therapy. Protein and fat digestion (not just their intake!) is key to a successful outcome
- Individual deficiencies should be addressed
- Focusing on foods that are truly nutrient dense and won’t negatively impact metabolism
- Sugar addiction, like any addiction, may require a specialist support on top of neurotransmitter balancing
- Gymnema Sylvestre (herb) can help to combat sugar cravings – consult with a professional
- L-tyrosine can be administered for addictive behaviour – consult with a professional
For further help and advice, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Online consultations from any location or face to face in Club de Mar Medical, Palma de Mallorca.
Written by Maya Flynn
About the author
Maya Flynn, founder of www.welcometoglow.com is a functional nutritional therapist, certified GAPS practitioner (Gut and Paychology / Physiology Syndrome) and natural health consultant. Consultations online and in Club De Mar Medical Centre.