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Digestive Issues in Eating Disorder Recovery

The process of renourishment can be frustrating and anxiety provoking. For many people, the digestive issues that crop up during eating disorder recovery are one of the toughest parts of the journey. Isn’t it bad enough that you have to work through eating disorder thoughts during a meal? It’s pretty unfair that your stomach hurts afterwards too…

Here are some common digestive issues related to eating disorders:

● Heartburn

● Slow stomach emptying

● Bloating/distention

● Stomach pain

● Nausea/vomiting

● Constipation

The good news is that these issues resolve with nutrition rehabilitation. The bad news is that this can take a while. Although it’s tempting to blame the digestive issues you’re having on the food you’re eating, these symptoms are actually due to the physiological changes that happen in the digestive tract in response to food restriction. If you aren’t eating regularly, your gut becomes weak and uncoordinated.

During nutrition rehabilitation, you’re essentially retraining your gut to do its job. Think of the renourishment process as physical therapy (PT) for your digestive tract. If you have an injury or a surgery, you might have to do PT afterwards to regain function. Your digestive system requires similar strengthening after chronic restriction. Anyone who has done PT can attest that it’s usually not fun or comfortable; it hurts for a while, but it gets easier over time. Eventually you get your normal functioning back and can do the activities you love again, making PT worthwhile. Your digestive tract is no different!

Healing the digestive system takes time, but there are ways to promote the healing process. Here are five ways you can support the retraining of your gut:

1) Consume adequate nutrition: The gastrointestinal (GI) muscles need adequate nutrition to grow and function.

2) Eat regularly (every 2-4 hours): Eating regularly keeps the digestive tract muscles working, improving strength and coordination.

3) Drink plenty of fluids: Consuming adequate fluids helps move food through the digestive tract and alleviates constipation.

4) Manage stress: Stress affects all the systems of the body, and can often manifest as digestive issues. Click here for 8 stress reduction activities you can try today.

5) Create a sleep routine: Regular sleep helps with growth and repair of muscles, and helps mitigate stress.

As you go through the process of renourishment, set realistic expectations. Aim for symptom improvement, rather than elimination. Some people experience total resolution of GI symptoms once they are medically stable, but most people have GI symptoms that persist months or years after recovery. You should see a reduction in frequency and severity of symptoms, but it’s not a realistic expectation that your stomach will never hurt. Stomachaches happen sometimes – they’re part of life in recovery.

If digestive struggles are complicating your ability to eat, please reach out for a free consultation at GI discomfort can cause both emotional and physical pain, and we can help you manage both. Our registered dietitians can recommend meal plan adjustments, herbal supplements, or over the counter medications to help manage discomfort in a way that’s supportive to recovery. And our therapists can teach you to manage strong negative emotions that arise from and/or exacerbate your GI symptoms.

Regardless of where you are in your healing journey, remember: you’re strong, you’re capable, and you’re not alone.

Written by Jenna Laughlin, dietetic intern at Restore Family Therapy

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