Digestive Woes of Eating Disorders and Why I’m Not Gluten-Free Anymore

Hello again, dear readers! After a much-needed month-ish-long break from the blogosphere, I’m thrilled to return to the good ol’ blog, especially because, boy oh boy, do I have some exciting posts, reviews, and giveaways lined up for all of you. For the next two weeks, my posts will come to you from Florence, Italy—a city near and dear to my heart, where I’ve visited my aunt every other year since the age of three. This year, I’m fortunate enough to spend my college’s spring break there with one of my very good friends and my parents. Rest assured, I’ll be providing you, dear readers, with plenty of reports of Florentine vegan eats and adventures, intertwined with two super fabulous giveaways. Moral of the story: keep a close eye on Farmers Market Vegan for the month of March! (And beyond, of course).

The post to break my blogging hiatus, however, does not concern Italy or free vegan products. Rather, it continues the conversations proliferated by National Eating Disorder Awareness (NEDA) Week 2014. Though the event concluded a couple Saturdays ago, I feel it hugely important to make an ongoing discussion of this highly stigmatized topic.

As so often happens, the inimitable Gena of Choosing Raw planted the idea seedlings for this post. Two weeks ago Gena featured three highly thoughtful posts in light of NEDA Week 2014—a mention in the first of which particularly caught my attention. In her post “Five Reasons to Embrace Recovery,” Gena lists the fact that recovery can save your life (a notion I touch upon in my narrative on Our Hen House regarding my recovery through veganism). In addition to the immediate physical symptoms of eating disorders, Gena notes the significant long-term health tolls EDs can take on one’s body. For me, the most notable of these are digestive disorders, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

If you’ve followed Farmers Market Vegan for a substantial amount of time, you’ll know that I’ve battled digestive stress for about three years now, very much in conjunction with my ED recovery. I chalked up frequent abdominal cramping, gas, and less-than-happy trips to the restroom to my assumed consumption of insufficiently washed produce, spoiled leftovers, and certain hard-to-digest foods. To mitigate these supposed culprits of digestive woe, I incorporated any and all foods touted as digestives into my diet—fermented foods; spices like ginger, fennel, peppermint, and their teas; etc. I joined in the recent widespread condemnation of gluten. I supplemented with digestive enzymes and probiotics. I developed a short series of yoga postures known to facilitate digestion. Nothing significantly improved my symptoms.

This past December, I finally decided that something beyond food choice and sanitization proved responsible for my ongoing digestive troubles. Indeed, a visit to my internal medicine doctor provided me with a diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)—a functional disorder of the large intestine that affects bowel contraction, resulting in cramping, diarrhea, constipation, and other fun symptoms. Every case of IBS is highly individualized, meaning that there exists no one medication or treatment for the disorder. Luckily, IBS does not affect long-term health or cause other health complications, but can significantly impact daily quality of life (and oh boy, does it). While it’s difficult to know that I’ll have to deal with IBS symptoms for the rest of my life, I’m super happy to give a name to my digestive woes, rather than to worry at every meal about how my stomach will feel afterwards, or to hypothesize about other more severe health complications that might cause my symptoms.

Interestingly, a number of women I know who have a history of disordered eating also now suffer from IBS which, according to recent research, proves a common correlation. Out of 73 ED patients involved in a 2010 study, 97% suffered from at least one functional gastrointestinal disorder (FGID) (a category that includes IBS). Another study prior to this one found that, out of 89 respondents, 87.6% had an onset of their ED prior to IBS symptoms, 6.7% had an onset of IBS prior to their ED, and 5.6% had an onset of their EDs and IBS the same time. Additionally, the latter study noted that those who suffer from EDs and IBS tend to share certain personality traits—perfectionism, negative self-evaluation, self-blame, chronic stress— and early developmental factors—childhood trauma, physical and sexual abuse. They also overwhelmingly tend to be women.

I find it the fact that there exists such a correlation between EDs and IBS fascinating—and completely logical. On a rather obvious level, disordered eating behaviors such as self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse, and restriction all but guarantee digestive complications. Less conspicuous, though, are the psychological similarities between both disorders: EDs and IBS prompt a “hyper-vigilance to internal sensations” and eating behaviors, as noted in research by Perkins et al. As I mentioned above, I first attributed my digestive complications to certain foods I consumed, demonizing gluten, peanut butter, and other foods known to cause digestive troubles. Such a habit reminds me of Steven Bratman’s definition of orthorexia as “a tendency to assume that every single physical symptom is a direct result of something we’ve eaten,” and thus signals to me a severe hindrance in my recovery largely inspired by digestive ailments. Developing a similar mindset towards food as that which plagued me during the most intense periods of my ED, I became essentially scared of certain foods due to my perception of their responsibility for my digestive troubles. To me, it comes as no surprise that many other women have experienced this phenomenon, especially considering the common advice given by internal medicine practitioners to keep a food journal to help identify “trigger foods,” or those that tend to cause an individual digestive upset.

Thankfully, with a clear plan of how to deal with my IBS came the much more relaxed mindset toward food that I had worked to cultivate throughout my recovery. Since I consume such a wholesome diet, it seems nonsensical to me (and medical practitioners to whom I’ve spoken) that treating my IBS would necessitate a dietary shift, or a naming of “trigger foods.” Instead, I’ve started taking a prescription-strength probiotic as well as a teaspoon of psyllium husk (a portion of an Indian plant that is essentially all soluble fiber) stirred into my morning smoothie everyday. These remedies have worked marvelously since I began employing them, and have considerably aided me in shunning the “food is enemy, food makes your gut unhappy” voice inside my head.

With this foregoing, I’ve re-embraced the foods that I perceived to upset my digestion. Most notably, I’ve begun eating gluten again, and with vigor. Both my body and soul have responded with amazing positivity towards bread, sandwiches, and other glutinous foods—my goodness, does it feel good to bite into the chewy-crunchy-creamy layers of a chickpea salad sandwich again! Though dubious at first that a reintroduction of gluten would not cause me digestive upset, it makes sense to me now, especially considering the fact that “dietary variety also helps to help bolster digestive strength,” a fact that Gena has witnessed first-hand from working with a GI doctor. So, dear readers, you can expect to see some glutinous recipes appearing on the blog from now on (though I’ll be sure to include gluten-free substitutions for those of you who suffer from actual gluten/wheat intolerances).

I think that the connection between eating disorders and digestive complications both emphasizes the long-term health detriments of EDs, and suggests a more understanding approach to treating digestive disorders. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter, and/or if you’ve had similar experiences.

And with that, I’ve got a plane to catch! My next post will reach you from Florence, Italy.

Until next time, Ali.

14 thoughts on “Digestive Woes of Eating Disorders and Why I’m Not Gluten-Free Anymore

  1. Emma says:

    I’m definitely in the same boat Ali. Having suffered with anorexia for many years my digestive system is pretty much shot to bits. Some days everything seems to be running smoothly and others it’s as if it just stops altogether. High-strength probiotics have definitely helped and I’ve been using slippery elm in smoothies as well which seems to have a soothing effect.
    Have a fantastic time in Florence! I studied there for 2 months several years ago and absolutely loved it 😀

  2. Heather @ The Soulful Spoon says:

    You hit my concerns, history, thoughts, current struggles and viewpoints on food now more than I could have put into words myself. Gena has changed the way I view health, and the book Gut Bliss, has changed my life. After 20 years of an eating disorder, I finally learned that two years of recovery isn’t enough to “heal” my poor digestion, which plagues me daily. Orthorexia stole more from me than I ever imagined, one being my sanity on trying to figure out what foods work and which ones don’t. I’m just now entering the point where I can say, “whatever” and just eat. That’s not easy, and I definitely still suffer, but it’s getting better mentally, anyway. THANK YOU!!:) LOVE YOUR BLOG!

  3. janet @ the taste space says:

    Ali, what a great post. You are courageous for sharing your less-than-awesome health issues. It is definitely a complex issue that I have thought of has I see so many bloggers talking about having IBS, which can be quite controversial in the medical community. Have you looked into FODMAPS? I like it because it is scientifically proven to help IBS symptoms (although placebo works, too, mind you).

    I remember someone writing a comment on my blog saying they used to think certain foods were challenging to eat until they figured out ALL foods were a problem. From a medical viewpoint, from a restricted diet, perfect digestion is not a main goal of the body, and it would make sense to slow transit time, etc, from an evolutionary view to help maximize small portions of food.

    Anyways, I haven’t written a comment as nearly eloquent as your post, but kudos for bringing something up that I bet a lot of readers could relate to.

  4. sf says:

    I’m so glad you’re back to posting! I recently discovered your blog and it is such an incredible resource to me as a longtime vegetarian and new vegan.

    This post really struck a chord. I’ve struggled with IBS my whole life and our stories are very similar. If you don’t mind me asking, what brand probiotic are you using?

    Looking forward to your posts from Italy! Ciao!

    • Ali Seiter says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words and support, Stefanie! I’m thrilled that this post resonated with you. I use a probiotic called VSL#3 and had my internal medicine doctor prescribe it to me at the suggestion of another trusted medical practitioner who specializes in women’s digestive issues. Thanks for reading! 😀

  5. organizedbabble says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I was just talking with a friend about this last night, as we both have digestive issues that are either caused by, or definitely exacerbated by, our histories of eating disorders. It has taken me several years, but I have gotten my system healed to a point where I have definite food intolerances and I balance what I eat, but my system is no longer in the “so sensitive that anything and everything irritates it”. Good luck to you, and have fun in Italy!


  6. kristle says:

    great post, i’ve been meaning to read this one for a while. i wouldn’t expect anything less from you. i can definitely relate with my orthorexia rearing its ugly little head again recently. it’s such a hard thing to monitor or even pinpoint, because when you’re feeling so great as a result of eating a certain way, it seems to just make sense to attribute any and all little health woes or discomforts also to something you’ve eaten.

    • Ali Seiter says:

      Thanks so much for your kind words, Kristle, I’m glad this post resonated with you. It is indeed a constant struggle, and I wish you the best of luck in cultivating long-term health and happiness. ❤

  7. Jess says:

    Hi Ali
    I love your writing style!
    Completely stumbled across your blog by accident:)
    I just wanted to post my experience in case it helped anyone else reading.
    I started to suffer from IBS after the birth of my first child 16 years ago which went on to develop into proctitis (whereupon I lost a whole load of weight felt sick constantly and bled) when I was 25. I am now 36 and wish I had been given more help at the time when I first encountered the problem, because I was given the same advise as you which worked for a while in the beginning.
    I have read so much over the years and experimented with different foods and lifestyles because I refused to rely on any form of medication when I got proctitis. I believe in finding the root of the problem rather than medicating the symptoms, after all if a pipe burst a plumber wouldn’t advise a constant mopping up action but instead would look for the cause and fix that.
    I have come to understand that our emotional state/underlying stress/pressure/pushing for high achievements/grief etc seem to have a direct effect on the stomach which makes sense considering there are so many nerves in the stomach hence we feel excitement or nervousness there first.
    So in light of this I embarked on alternative therapies and a spiritual inner inquiry to start being true to myself I mean really being true! (Never hurting anyone in the process).
    I have a little gluten now and then (tiny) but stay away from it in general as after I studied on a nutrition course I realised it was a protein the body found very difficult to expel and is linked to so many illnesses. Olympians are often advised to not eat gluten too as their performance improves-I think this says a lot.
    I absolutely love my food and always have done and find creative ways for my 3 kids to stay healthy too now as they all have healthy appetites. I am also vegetarian and follow an Ayervedic way of eating because I love spices and find I stay well all year round.
    I know I’ve rambled on a bit but my point was even when one thinks there is no emotional baggage to deal with there will have always been a trigger which in turn responds to other triggers and the medical profession aren’t always equipped to deal or understand with this side of IBS-only suggesting counselling etc which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
    I found EFT, NLP, acupuncture and massage as well as meditation completely turned my life around with my stomach.
    I wish you continued health and happiness. Jess xx

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