World Digestive Health Day: Eating Disorders and Digestive Disorders Often Go Hand-in-Hand

29 May, 2020

For World Digestive Health Day, Hannah Boardman shares how an undiagnosed digestive disorder contributed to the development of an eating disorder which persisted for years. This is her story of recovery.

It is all too common for people suffering with an eating disorder to also be experiencing a variety of digestive issues.

Research shows over 90% of people with eating disorders also have a functional gut disorder (FGD). (1,2)

Functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGD) include disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, gastric reflux, bloating, constipation and diarrhoea. These digestive issues can complicate eating disorder recovery and severely impact quality of life.

I know first-hand the struggle of trying to recover from both an eating disorder and a digestive disorder.

My issues began because of an undiagnosed digestion disorder which started when I was 13. I began struggling with constipation, gastric reflex, nausea and vomiting, which became more severe over time.

As a result of this, I developed a fear around certain food groups, restricted my intake due to uncomfortable feelings of fullness, avoided meals due to pain, bloating and feeling sick, and made excuses not to eat.

Looking back on this time of my life, it is clear that all the behaviours were highly similar to those of eating disorders.

At 19, I developed an eating disorder, whilst still having no idea what was going on with my digestion. I suffered with an atypical eating disorder, displaying characteristics of bulimia and anorexia at various times. This period was met with so much blame, self-loathing and isolation. I felt totally overwhelmed - like I was going round in circles.

I knew I had to eat more food, more regularly, but when I did I would end up having digestive flare ups which lasted for days! Not to mention all the medications I was having to take and their nasty side effects.

Food became highly stressful. I never knew what to eat, what not to eat, when to eat or how much. My body image was also highly impacted because of both the digestive issues and the eating disorder. I had a double whammy to contend with.

Both disorders led to the development of anxiety and depression. I remember sitting on my bed one night and I just breaking down. I had hit rock bottom and wondered, “is this how my life is going to be now?”

Research suggests people with digestive disorders and eating disorders can share the same underlying mental health challenges and that these can also lead to more digestive symptoms that can continue long after the eating disorder symptoms have resolved. (3)

It is difficult trying to overcome both these disorders. They are both the chicken and the egg and can, like in my case, lengthen the time taken to fully recover.

After seven long years I was finally able to overcome my eating disorder and l was diagnosed with the chronic illness, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. This is a rare collagen disorder which impacts the functioning of my entire digestive system. There is no cure, so I have learnt to manage it.

Some days, my Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome can be really tough to manage, but I have found the right team of experts to support me and I have a detailed physical and mental healthcare plan. I also now have so much knowledge and understanding about my condition and the diet I need to follow to help reduce any physical symptoms. For me, knowledge is truly power.

My partner and family have also been there for me throughout. I feel blessed to have such a close-knit support system.

If you are struggling with one or both disorders, here are my three top tips.

1. Seek specialist help early

Digestive problems can take a long time to diagnose, so the earlier you can seek specialist help the better.

The easiest way is to go to your GP and ask for a referral to a gastroenterologist, who is a specialist doctor in digestive health. Alongside this, you can seek professional to help find an appropriate diet plan and supplements to support digestion.

2. One size does not fit all

Trying to manage both disorders is complicated and so you may need support from a variety of different specialists and health practitioners.

I saw several doctors, nurses and therapists. If I had seen each professional in isolation I am certain I would not have been able to fully recover, but in combination they each played an essential part in helping me get to where I am today.

It is okay to need more help than others and this will give you the best chance of recovering from your eating disorder and managing your digestive problems.

3. Build a support system

A solid support system can include medical professionals, other health professionals, family and friends. Some days are tough and some days you may need different support to others. I realised fairly quickly that I could not just rely on one person or one professional to support me in everything I needed.

Sharing your struggles with your family, friends and loved ones is also important as they can help to give you strength to keep on going. My parents and partner were there to pick me up on those tough days and they still do to this day. They have my back and have fought my corner time after time. Building your own team is vital!

As part of my journey to the Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome diagnosis I was shocked at the numbers of eating disorders that were discovered as a result of digestive problems. This is why I am speaking out now and sharing my story to raise awareness of digestive problems as risk factors for eating disorders.

If reading this story has brought up any issues for you, contact Butterfly on ED HOPE or Life Line on 13 11 14 .

Sharing personal stories challenges the stigmas associated with eating disorders and can inspire others in their recovery journeys. To share yours, head here: https://insideoutinstitute.org.au/get-involved/share-your-story.

References

  1. Boyd C, Abraham S, Kellow J. Psychological features are important predictors of functional gastrointestinal disorders in patients with eating disorders. Scand J Gastroenterol 2005; 40: 929–35.
  2. Perkins SJ, Keville S, Schmidt U, Chalder T. Eating disorders and irritable bowel syndrome: is there a link? J Psychosom Res 2005; 59: 57–64.
  3. Janssen, P. (2010). Can eating disorders cause functional gastrointestinal disorders? P. Janssen Eating and functional gastrointestinal disorders. Neurogastroenterology & Motility, 22(12), 1267–1269.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

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