How to Stop Obsessing Over Food: The brain-gut connection

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Written By

Lauryn

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Expert Reviewed By

Dr. Lauryn Lax, OTD, MS

Dr. Lauryn, OTD, MS is a doctor of occupational therapy, clinical nutritionists and functional medicine expert with 25 years of clinical and personal experience in healing from complex chronic health issues and helping others do the same.

Food Is Medicine...for The Mind Copy 5 800X675 1 | How To Stop Obsessing Over Food: The Brain-Gut Connection

Will the obsessive thoughts about food ever go away? An unconventional way to stop the diet noise.

One in 4 college women and 1 in 10 women, in general, struggle with an eating disorder—defined as: “Any range of mental distress or disorder around food (body and fitness), presenting in abnormal or disturbed eating habits.” And, even if you are not formally diagnosed with an “eating disorder”, there’s no question that “disordered eating” exists—in a society where 1 in 2 people are on a diet at any given time, and at least 90% (9 in 10) of women are hating on their bodies.

#TheStruggleIsReal

I struggled with an all-consuming eating disorder for nearly 15 years of my life—a disorder that, no matter how hard I tried during those years, I COULD NOT GET OVER IT.  The biggest question on my mind:

Will the thoughts ever go away?!

Brain Gut Connection

Making the Thoughts Go Away

  • I could make myself eat.
  • I could do what I was told in treatment.
  • I could go through the motions and jump through hoops—talking about my struggles in therapy, sitting through group therapies, and telling my nutritionist I was eating everything on my meal plan.

But the thoughts would NOT go away.

Treatment for eating disorders was a WHOLE ‘NUTHA ball game. In and out of treatment centers and hospitals—Arizona, Missori, Florida, Arkansas, Colorado—seeking the “best treatment” in the country, only to find very similar protocols and approaches to treatment at most all of them.

Yes, the scenery was different. And yes, my age and personal growth and maturity played a role in what I got out of each center (or did not get out of it), but for the most part, in-patient eating disorder treatment was not that different from one place to another.

The Hamster-Wheel 

And so, my “recovery journey” played a similar tune—on repeat—year in and year out that I would go into one place, get out, then go into another.

I played the “treatment game”—ate what I was told, took on all the “challenges” of eating bagels and Ben & Jerry’s, talked and cried my eyes out in therapy offices (why do I still struggle!?!)…but not much changed.

I’d go in. And get out—only to fall right back into my struggle.

Despite “going through the motions” of recovery and treatment, I did not realize the MISSING LINK in recovery until years later when…

My mind had been healed.

Not just managed.

But healed.

I’m talking:

  • Thoughts and white noise gone.
  • I-can-eat-what-I-want-not-what-ED-wants.
  • My-weight-does-not-define-me.
  • Healthy voice Lauryn.
  • Clear awareness of the eating disorder—and the lies it had fed me for years.
  • No longer consumed or controlled in every single area of my life by the “should’s” and “shouldn’ts” of ED.
  • Not ashamed of myself.

So what was that missing link I had been missing for so long?!

Actually TWO things:

1. Finding my greater purpose and life outside the eating disorder (For me, this was finding my worth and identity in the Lord, and uncovering my passions for writing, people, helping others, being active, and vibrantly enjoying the little things in life), and…

A Book That Was Super Impactful In My Journey (Click On Link)
A book that was super impactful in my journey (click on pic)

 

2. Healing my brain through real food

Gut Brain Connection

 

Point #2 is a HUGE MISSING LINK in the treatment of eating disorders today as many conventional treatment approaches are STILL trying to force a square peg into a round hole through:

  • Medicating and prescribing drugs to address the symptoms of depression, anxiety, OCD and insecurities

 

  • Processed foods, fast food, the traditional food guide pyramid’s “SAD” diet (standard American diet) and other “challenge” foods as the basis of many re-feeding diets (rather than a balance of real food with challenges mixed in)

 

  • Little to NO knowledge (or awareness) of the link between mental health and the foods we eat (be it diet foods, fast foods, processed foods, or real foods)

 

  • Talking and talking and talking about the eating disorder, and looking into the past—why the struggle continues to be there—but very little looking into the future (helping individuals get a CLEAR PICTURE of what recovery and their identity WITHOUT the eating disorder could look like)

 

  • Addressing the symptoms and behaviors of the eating disorder (restriction, binging, purging, overexercise, poor self-esteem, self-hatred), but not addressing many of the ROOT CAUSES of the distress in the first place (adrenal stress, poor digestion and an unhealthy gut micro biome, etc.)

They mean no harm either.

They are trying to help—and for some, with persistence and true grit—it does help.

But in my recovery, on the other side, through much research and trial-and-error experience, I have also discovered another way that could have saved myself a lot of heartache, money and struggle had I realized just how much…

My gut health was impacting my brain.

Here’s what I mean…

The Brain Gut Connection

Brain Gut Connection

 Have you ever had “butterflies”?

You know that feeling of nerves…in your stomach?

You’ve probably experienced it when:

  • Speaking in public
  • Standing in line for the gigantic roller coaster at the amusement park
  • You awaited the text message (or AIM) response from the boy you liked
  • Opening up your college acceptance (or rejection) letter
  • Accepting a reward on stage
  • Going in for a job interview

Twists, turns, and knots. Perhaps even a stomachache, loss of appetite, along with other symptoms like: clammy hands, a rapidly beating chest, a mind you cannot turn off.

Nerves will get you.

This “butterfly effect” is just ONE indicator of something greater going on in your body every day: The brain-gut connection.

Your brain has a direct effect on your stomach—(and vice versa).

  • For example, the very thought of eating can release the stomach’s juices before food gets there.
  • And, the emotional distress over a bad breakup or stress at work, can leave you “tied up in knots”—not hungry or insatiably hungry, unable to get your “emotional fill” through food.

On the opposite side, the gut can impact the brain (how you think).

  • Have you ever felt constipated or bloated and found that uncomfortable feeling is all you could think about? 
  • Ever eaten sugar and suddenly felt wirey, energetic and like your brain was running 90-miles-per-hour?
  • What about gluten or dairy and felt a euphoric brain fog—unable to concentrate or focus?

The brain-gut connection goes both ways.

A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut (Brain meets gut. And gut meets the brain).

Put Some Fermented Foods (Like This Kombucha) Into Your Life. #Armyourgut. (Click On Pic For More Details)
Put some fermented foods (like THIS kombucha) into your life. #ArmYourGut. (click on pic for more details)

 

Not surprisingly, there is science to back this up:

Your vagus nerve—the nerve responsible for digestion—runs directly from your stomach to your brain.

Connection.

Brain Gut

Little by little, more and more research is coming out to reveal this.

A recent report, released from the University of North Carolina this past year stated:

“People with anorexia nervosa have very different microbial communities residing inside their guts compared to healthy individuals and that this bacterial imbalance is associated with some of the psychological symptoms related to the eating disorder.”

English?

Study participants with eating disorders had unhealthy gut health and digestion that was directly impacting eating disorder symptoms like:

  • Anxiety
  • Perfectionism
  • Self-criticism
  • People-pleasing
  • Obsessiveness
  • Overthinking
  • Depression and low mood
  • Body-image dysmorphia
  • Sleep and food hygiene habits (for improved energy and digestion)

While conventional medicine and therapy, not surprisingly, offers medications, processed foods and lots of “talk therapy” to treat the symptoms of eating disorders with somewhat limited success (data suggests that 40-50% of patients do not respond to current strategies, and for those who do, they “manage” their symptoms—but don’t mention feeling completely free), I take a very different approach in my functional medicine practice:

Brain Gut Connection

Mind:

  • Gaining clear vision around your ideal picture of “health” and thriving in life.
  • Stress management.
  • Facing your inner mean-girl.

Body:

  • Education (instead of telling you what to do, I’m going to teach you why).
  • Intuitive eating.
  • Healing the gut (to heal the brain).
  • Addressing underlying body imbalances (hormones, digestive issues, mineral and vitamin deficiencies, toxicity)
  • Eating real foods.
  • Appropriate nutritional supplementation as needed for imbalances and deficiencies.
  • Moderate ‘food exposure’ therapy, founded on an 80/20 philosophy (balance and moderation).
  • Support and guided exploration around movement and exercise from an early stage to define a new healthy relationship with fitness and one’s body.
  • Primal movement.
  • Sleep and food hygiene habits (for improved energy and digestion)

Soul:

  • Connecting to your passions.
  • Help in discovering your greater purpose.
  • Battling spiritual warfare.
  • Did I mention…fun?

Note: It’s important to recognize that medication, particularly antidepressants, can be essential for some people; I never recommend coming off antidepressants too quickly, and there are times when patients clearly benefit from the support of these medications.

Talk therapy is ALSO imperative for processing and understanding one’s self and recovery process; AND exposure therapy (exposure to uncomfortable things—like food or disruption in behaviors) is also necessary to push past lots of food fears and unhealthy habits.

Having been the “guinea pig” in conventional medicine and treatment approaches, this idea was NOT intuitive to me even five years ago.

But now, after researching the scientific literature on the microbiome-gut-brain axis, and working with clients to heal their body (gut) and mind, and seeing the incredible improvements in mood, I’m convinced this is the starting place to heal anxiety and depression.

#Heal your gut.

I’ll show you how.

 Brain Gut Connection

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2 thoughts on “How to Stop Obsessing Over Food: The brain-gut connection

    1. Hi Elissa! Are you looking for the free kickstart guide for my newsletter opt in? I will look into this…What is your best email address?

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