Written by John Immel,
Why Do People Become Anorexic?Imagine if every time you ate, you felt sluggish, tired, and a loss of vitality. Picture your energy drained, your goals for the day slipping away into a sleepy distance. Naturally you'd blame food for your problems.
With anorexia, people see you as underweight. But that's not how you see your body. You see every bite of food, every pound you gain, as having less energy to live. Food starts to make you feel stressed out and tense as you stare at each bite of food, wondering whether to nourish yourself and feel sluggish, or starve yourself and feel energized. With each pound you lose, you feel lighter, even though on a deeper level you know you're killing yourself. You know that the problem really isn't food, but you can't seem to find a way out of this pattern.
This situation can be an everyday reality for someone with anorexia. Anorexic individuals may experience fatigue, gas and bloating, or some level of either physical or emotional pain and discomfort every time they eat. Although anorexia is a psychological disorder, psychology is also tied in with how a person feels after they eat. Not everyone with an eating disorder has anorexia, but with each eating disorder, the effects of food on your body also affect hunger, appetite, and food cravings, distorting your relationship with food.
The term anorexia, meaning small appetite or loss of appetite, was coined in 1873 by Sir William Gull, one of Queen Victoria's personal physicians. In the context of disordered eating, anorexia occurs when a person diets excessively, despite being dangerously underweight. It can also occur as a result of certain illnesses such as cancer, and some medications and medical treatments such as chemotherapy.
Shockingly, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, with anorexia being the most life-threatening. Traditionally, eating disorders such as anorexia are considered to develop as a result of psychological stress or trauma. While this is true in many cases, there may also be a strong physical component that may be implicated in the development of anorexia - indigestion.
Anorexia & IndigestionSome people with anorexia have sensitive digestive tracts and react to certain foods that cause gas and bloating such as cabbage, broccoli, and beans. They may also be particularly sensitive to the more heavy, difficult to digest foods, such as dairy and wheat. This type of indigestion, which is characteristic of Catabolic (Vata) dosha, is known as vishamagni.
Some individuals with anorexia feel bogged down by food that has life-sustaining calories, such as cheese, bread, and other rich foods. Every time they eat food that could help them gain weight, they feel tired and sluggish, not to mention petrified of weight gain. This type of indigestion, which is characteristic of Anabolic (Kapha) dosha, is known in Ayurveda as mandagni.
Other individuals may feel pain and discomfort when they eat, due to the presence of a duodenal ulcer, or infection with h. pylori. This type of indigestion, which is characteristic of Metabolic (Pitta) dosha, is known in Ayurveda as tikshnagni.
Where there is indigestion or anxiety with each meal, a light, empty stomach can start to seem more and more attractive than a full one. People who suffer with anorexia report a desire for this sense of lightness and the clarity of mind that comes with an empty stomach. An empty stomach can of course leave an individual feeling fatigued and lacking energy, but sometimes, particularly when there is indigestion, the lightness of an empty stomach is appealing and can actually make a person feel temporarily better. This may lead a person to stop eating big meals, or start skipping meals completely.
Indigestion as a Causative FactorWhile people with anorexia tend to experience indigestion, it may also be a precursor to the disease and a possible causative factor. Chronic discomfort reinforces certain beliefs around food. A person may come to believe that food makes them feel bad and they should avoid it, for example. They might adopt beliefs that food is heavy, dulls their focus, and makes it more difficult to concentrate. They may start to believe that less food means better clarity and focus, and better clarity and focus equates to success. Those beliefs can also be supported by the cultural environment too as pressure mounts to look a certain way and achieve a certain level of success. It is possible, though, that the origin of these beliefs stem from, or are strengthened by, indigestion. These beliefs can predispose a person towards anorexia, whereas a person who has never experienced chronic indigestion may not suffer the same consequences.
RemediesWhile indigestion plays an important role in anorexia, and even a possible causative factor, this disorder may well have deep psychological roots. It is important to note that the psychological components of an eating disorder are out of the scope of an Ayurvedic Practitioner, and a person in recovery should meet a qualified therapist on a regular basis.
The main therapeutic goals in Ayurveda when recovering from an eating disorder is to remedy the indigestion, restore appetite, and restore a healthy relationship with food. Natalie Immel (wife of John Immel, our founder) suffered from anorexia. Together, John & Natalie wrote Explore Your Hunger to help those with eating disorders cultivate a healthy relationship with food. The book can help those who want to lose weight, as well as those who want to gain weight, through an exploration of how we experience hunger.
Then, follow these 10 Habits of Healthy Digestion to regain digestive strength. If you had anorexia or bulimia, and are looking to learn more about the Ayurvedic approach to these disorders, check out Heal Your Digestion after Bulimia and Anorexia.
A person recovering from anorexia and the associated indigestion will need a specialized diet to renourish themselves without creating any further indigestion. Even once they overcome anorexia and are in the recovery phase, there still may be some indigestion with certain foods, so time and care must be taken to find a nourishing diet a person can digest well.
Generally, well cooked and easy to digest meals that balance Vata at regular mealtimes are appropriate. Herb formulas like hingvastak churna and Mint Belly Bliss, support digestive strength and reduce the indigestion causing gas, bloating, and fermentation that can lead to loss of appetite.
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About the AuthorJohn Immel, the founder of Joyful Belly, teaches people how to have a healthy diet and lifestyle with Ayurveda. His approach to Ayurveda exudes a certain ease, which many find enjoyable and insightful. His online course Balance Your Ayurvedic Diet in a Week provides tools for gracefully healing with Ayurveda to thousands. John also directs Joyful Belly's School of Ayurveda , which specializes in digestive tract pathology & Ayurvedic nutrition. John and his wife Natalie recently published Explore Your Hunger: A Guide to Hunger, Appetite & Food.
John's interest in Ayurveda and digestive tract pathology was inspired by a complex digestive disorder acquired from years of international travel, including his public service work in South Asia. John's commitment to the detailed study of digestive disorders reflects his zeal to get down to the roots of the problem. His hope and belief in the capacity of each & every client to improve their quality of life is nothing short of a personal passion. John's creativity in the kitchen and delight in cooking for others comes from his family oriented upbringing. In addition to his certification in Ayurveda, John holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Harvard University.
John enjoys sharing Ayurveda within the context of his Catholic roots, and finds Ayurveda gives him an opportunity to participate in the healing mission of the Church. Jesus expressed God's love by feeding and healing the sick. That kindness is the fundamental ministry of Ayurveda as well.
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