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5 Tips for Comanaging IBS and an Eating Disorder

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Editor's Note

Any medical information included is based on a personal experience. For questions or concerns regarding health, please consult a doctor or medical professional.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve dealt with extensive digestion and pain issues and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel constantly sick. This has led to me spending days in bed because I don’t feel well enough to get up. I’ve experienced widespread body pain for many years, which eventually led to a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, but even before my body pain began, I was in and out of doctor’s offices for my digestive issues.  

I went to numerous specialists and underwent colonoscopies, endoscopies and biopsies several times, but each test came back with nothing to show. I also found that my being young didn’t work out in my favor, because I was often overlooked and dismissed by the specialists I saw. My symptoms would be minimized, and I would leave thinking that maybe nothing was wrong and that I was just exaggerating or making it up. I felt silenced, which led to many years of me hiding my symptoms and trying to self-medicate with substances that I thought would make me feel better. 

Having body pain and digestive issues has always been a lot for me to deal with, but never more than when I was a child. During this time, I developed anorexia nervosa which eventually evolved into bulimia nervosa. Since I was thirteen, I have battled my eating disorder alongside my body pain and digestive issues. Unfortunately, I have found that I often use eating disorder behaviors in response to the pain and discomfort I experience each day. Finally, when I was twenty years old, I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This gave me a name to put on my pain and discomfort, but I was not offered any treatments or insight on how to manage the condition. Again, I felt silenced and as though I was left to my own devices to manage something that I didn’t fully understand. 

April is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) Awareness Month, which honestly surprised me when I first heard about it. The fact that there is a month dedicated to this condition, a condition which was minimized by the specialists who diagnosed me, suddenly made me began to feel validated. Maybe what I was experiencing was real and serious. This realization led me to keep looking for a specialist who would finally empathize with me and offer me some sort of reprieve from my symptoms.

Last November, I did finally find a physician who was able to help me. She took my symptoms seriously and even performed surgery on me twice for one of my symptoms– something that no other specialist even bothered to consider. Having someone finally believe me and take what I was experiencing seriously led me to seek out more information on IBS and learn how to manage my condition better. Being able to better manage this condition led me to learn more about how to handle my bulimia nervosa behaviors while having a condition that often led me to want to use certain behaviors to combat the discomfort I experience. It was during this time that I learned that IBS and bulimia nervosa often go hand in hand, and both are conditions that deeply affect the digestive system and can cause numerous problems.

I have found that when I am in my eating disorder, my IBS flairs up, which subsequently makes it very difficult for me to remain in recovery– including following my eating plan and refraining from using behaviors. However, over time I have found some things that help me to manage my pain and discomfort without resorting to my eating disorder behaviors for reprieve.  

I hope that the following tips help you if you are struggling with IBS or digestive issues and are battling an eating disorder. You are so strong, and just know that I am here to validate your experience and cheer you on! You deserve to live a beautiful life that isn’t often dictated by pain and discomfort or an eating disorder.

So, take my hand, and let us move forward together. It may not be easy, but it is possible.

1. Hot herbal tea with meals, after meals and in between meals is your best friend– get acquainted

Having IBS and recovering from bulimia nervosa, or any eating disorder, is extremely taxing on the body. Your body is relearning how to function properly, while your IBS makes eating difficult. At mealtimes and snacks my stomach begins to ache unbearably, and I struggle with acid reflux just about every hour of everyday – what I eat doesn’t seem to make a difference. However, I have found one thing that makes the digestive process more bearable, and that is hot herbal tea.

Now, I emphasize that the tea you drink must be herbal – and caffeine free – because caffeine can be hard on your entire body, but especially your digestive system, and it can be connected to certain eating disorder behaviors that may not be helpful for recovery. My favorite kind of tea is any herbal tea that has lavender or jasmine in it, but especially a tea called Lemon Lavender Lane. Drinking any beverage while eating tends to increase my acid reflux, but I have found that having a cup of herbal tea after each meal soothes my stomach and greatly decreases how much acid reflux I experience. However, for some people drinking hot herbal tea during a meal is more effective in soothing the stomach. But you are free to choose when you drink your hot herbal tea, all I’m trying to say is have a cup of herbal tea any time food is involved and see whether it soothes your IBS symptoms. I know that for me, it is often the best medicine.

2. Make probiotics a part of your daily medicinal routine

Probiotics can increase the healthy bacteria in your gut, which, in turn, improves your digestive system and bowel movements. This can be incredibly helpful for those of us with IBS who have an eating disorder because the probiotics aid our bodies as we heal and relearn healthy eating and movement behaviors. Probiotics are also available as a prescription if cost is an issue, so make sure you talk to your doctor about how probiotics might help you in your recovery process!

3. Use meditation to relax after meals and/or before bed

Relaxation is important not only in eating disorder recovery, but for IBS as well. When you are relaxed, your digestive system relaxes, and this can create a smoother digestive experience throughout your day. One thing that I like to do is meditate after lunch and dinner because those are the hardest meals for me, and this helps me to reconnect to myself and reward my body for all that it does.

Try a simple five-minute meditation after one of your meals to see how it affects your symptoms.  You might be surprised! There are many short meditations available for free on YouTube.

4. Practice mindful movement– this one can be tricky when over-exercising is an eating disorder behavior, so please proceed with caution

Exercising is something that is often used as a behavior in individuals with eating disorders, but one big part of recovery is reconnecting to movement and moving your body out of love instead of hate. 

It can take a long time to be at peace with movement again, so please skip over this tip if it is a trigger for you.

It has taken me a long time to be at peace with exercise, but I am still improving my relationship with it. Mindful movement was such a foreign concept to me when I began my eating disorder recovery, but I now find joy in it because I feel like I am giving a gift to my body through it. Movement has been shown to improve IBS symptoms as well, and I have found that going for a walk helps to ease my symptoms and clears my mind when I am struggling with eating disorder thoughts and/or behaviors alongside IBS symptoms. If you are comfortable, try doing a short walk each day, and think grateful thoughts about your body as you do so.

5. Be mindful when you eat – check in with your body and note how different foods affect your IBS

Just like with mindful movement, being mindful of the food you eat can be tricky to navigate if you have an eating disorder. I know that sometimes when I focus too much on my food I struggle with restriction. But with IBS, there may be certain foods that do contribute to your symptoms and eating less of the food or removing it from your diet can help you to feel better. One clever way to be mindful of how the food you are eating is making you feel is keeping a food journal. Write down how your symptoms are after eating diverse kinds of foods and adjust your diet accordingly. However, it is possible that keeping a food journal may be triggering for you, at which point I would advise you to stop the practice. Just try to be mindful when you are eating and make a mental note if you begin to feel symptomatic after eating certain foods. Try not to judge what you are eating. Just try to connect to your body and learn how to become aware of how certain foods affect your IBS symptoms.

Having irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and an eating disorder sometimes feels like a double edge sword. I have found that both of my illnesses seem to be intertwined, and having IBS absolutely affects my ability to pursue and maintain recovery.

However, while recovery is rocky, it is possible, and you can learn how to positively manage your IBS through mindfulness and the other ideas that I shared with you.

You do not deserve to experience the discomfort that IBS causes, and I admire you for the oftentimes invisible fight you fight each day while having an eating disorder and IBS.

Keep fighting, you are worth it!

Image courtesy of Getty Images

Originally published: April 14, 2021
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