In my last guest post, I mentioned that I have been dealing with some health issues, and I want to share some interesting information with you. Please keep in mind that I am not qualified to provide medical advice, but I hope this will resonate with you if you are facing the same issues as I will discuss in this post.
Shortly after my fibromyalgia diagnosis in August of 2017, I began experiencing a new round of unexplainable, random symptoms that seemed to come out of nowhere – much like the fibro ones did. The difference this time was that they did not fluctuate, as is the case with fibro. It seemed like my body was attacking itself, and the symptoms hit pretty much every system in my body – I was plagued with respiratory issues, Gastro Intestinal (GI) distress, hypothyroid (the thyroid hormone was being produced sluggishly), nausea, racing heart, and debilitating leg and hip pain, to name a few.
I was sent to a different specialist for each issue, because the collective symptoms did not match any sort of diagnosis. Doctor after doctor just scratched their heads and said, “This doesn’t make sense.” After many months of CT scans, MRI’s, blood draws, X-rays, respiratory testing, medications, and other diagnostic testing, I was STILL without any answers, and feeling awful. I knew all of these symptoms had to be connected somehow.
I eventually sought an alternative opinion from an integrative medicine doctor (meaning he uses a combination of Eastern and Western medicine to diagnose and treat illnesses). He put his finger on the issue in about five minutes – one that all of the doctors combined had not been able to figure out for the better part of two years. The first thing he said was that I developed a condition called leaky gut. Here is a good description of the condition from Harvard Medical School:
“Inside our bellies, we have an extensive intestinal lining covering more than 4,000 square feet of surface area. When working properly, it forms a tight barrier that controls what gets absorbed into the bloodstream. An unhealthy gut lining may have large cracks or holes, allowing partially digested food, toxins, and [bacteria] to penetrate the tissues beneath it. This may trigger inflammation and changes in the gut flora (normal bacteria) that could lead to problems within the digestive tract and beyond.”
In my case, this leak triggered a string of inflammation that spread to different places throughout my body, which explains the randomness of the symptoms. Additionally, my gut bacteria were completely out of whack. There were virtually no “good” bacteria left, and my gut was inundated with “bad” bacteria. The reason for the lack of diagnosis up until this point was that gut bacteria did not show up on any of the tests that I had done prior to seeing this doctor.
Did you know that gut bacteria controls a lot of what happens in your body? I certainly didn’t. When the doctor told me this, everything finally made sense. I learned that when the good and bad gut bacteria are unbalanced, it can affect many different processes in the body. According to the doctor, all of the symptoms listed above are attributed to a combination of my lack of probiotics (good bacteria), small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, or SIBO (bad bacteria), and leaky gut.
Knowing this information, I couldn’t help but wonder how my history with an eating disorder tied into all of this. The doctor had never said outright that this was inherently caused by my eating disorder, but obviously having an eating disorder didn’t do my body any favors. I decided to do some research on this, just for curiosity’s sake.
I found a lot of articles on the subject, which stated a lot of different findings around eating disorders and gut bacteria. Scientists are starting to delve into this research more. So far they are revealing that the state of a person’s gut flora (an umbrella term for the good and bad gut bacteria) is very much unbalanced in anorexia nervosa, and this could impact hunger and fullness signals, mood, energy, anxiety, and other bodily functions. There are a few reasons for this, according to the articles I read:
-A person’s gut bacteria are influenced by what the person eats. A varied, balanced food intake keeps the bacteria at equilibrium (that is, there is an equal balance and good and bad bacteria). When food intake is disordered, this affects the gut bacteria significantly.
-The gut is linked to the brain via a gut-brain axis. This means that gut bacteria (or lack thereof) can influence the parts of the brain that control appetite, metabolism, and behavior. This can lead to depression, anxiety, and other behavioral/emotional challenges, which frequently accompany eating disorders.
-Another interesting find is that repeated use of antibiotics in children put those children at an increased risk for eating disorders as teenagers. Earlier this year, a study was conducted by Cynthia Bulik, University of North Carolina Professor and founder of UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders. This study revealed some interesting information regarding the link between eating disorders and childhood infections:
“Bulik and her colleagues have tied exposure to infections during childhood to an increased risk of developing eating disorders in a large, population-based examination. In their study, which was published in April in JAMA Psychiatry, the researchers examined a cohort of 525,643 adolescent girls born in Denmark between 1989 and 2006, among whom 4,240 were diagnosed with an eating disorder. (Boys were excluded from the study because too few males received an eating disorder diagnosis to conduct a meaningful analysis.)
The team’s investigation, which included data up until the end of 2012, revealed that girls who were hospitalized for a severe infection had a 22 percent increased risk for anorexia, a 35 percent higher risk for bulimia, and a 39 percent increased risk for other nonspecified eating disorders, compared to those who did not receive a diagnosis. Treatment with anti-infective agents, such as antibiotics or antivirals, also appeared to have an effect: individuals who had received three or more prescriptions for those drugs had a higher risk of developing an eating disorder than those with fewer prescriptions. The risk was greatest within the first three months after a hospital admission or a redeemed prescription.
‘[This is] an interesting study that adds to the existing body of literature demonstrating the importance of biological factors in the etiology of eating disorders,’ says Neville Golden, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford University who was not involved in this work. Although these findings can only establish a correlation between infections and eating disorders without proving a causal link, the authors contend that their results support the hypothesis that the immune system might be a culprit.”
It is likely that my leaky gut developed as a result of having my gallbladder removed. In a nutshell, the liver produces bile, a substance that breaks down fat so it can be digested. The bile secreted from the liver is stored in the gallbladder. Because my gallbladder was essentially not functioning, there was not enough bile in my intestines, which leads to leaky gut. Additionally, I was not digesting food properly, as the majority of the foods I was eating were increasing the inflammation in my gut and in the other parts of my body that I mentioned earlier.
So how does this apply to my eating disorder? In addition to the above:
-I struggled with anorexia for years. I couldn’t find any research on bulimia and gut bacteria (I also struggled with bulimia), but that eating disorder definitely alters the GI tract as well, so I would make the assumption that both types of eating disorders contributed to my gut issues.
-I had relentless battles with strep throat as a child and was on antibiotics for a long time.
-I was born prematurely and had antibiotics for various issues/infections when I was born, and as I grew up.
-I had anxiety as a child.
-I had underlying issues that caused me a lot of stress.
There were many other factors too, as eating disorders are bio-psycho-social illnesses. This means that there is not just one cause – they develop as a result of psychological stressors (such as perfectionism), biological/physical factors (genetics, for example), and social factors (such as living environment, school environment, etc.).
This was really interesting for me, and I hope you found it interesting, too. I am so thankful that there is more research being done on the subject, because I think it could lead to a real breakthrough in treatment of eating disorders. I hope that, someday, we can live in a world where eating disorders are non-existent. Until then, we can keep fighting – to recover, to advocate for the importance of treatment, and to truly live the lives we were meant to live.
Alison is a passionate advocate for mental health awareness and recovery. She graduated from Salem State University in 2015 with a bachelor's in psychology, and returns to the school annually to speak about eating disorders and share her recovery story. Learn more about Alison on our Blog Squad page.