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Natasha's Story: Eating Disorders and the Microbiome


Hi, I’m Natasha.

One of the first things the doctor said to me when I was first diagnosed with an eating disorder was that by going down this path, I’m basically committing a very slow suicide. Calmly, she explained that as the eating disorder progresses, the brain will shrink and my cognitive functions will decline. The body will begin to reclaim muscle non-selectively to try and obtain the protein and other nutrients it’s not receiving through diet – potentially leading to problems and/or failure of the heart or other organs. The stomach will shrink, and the digestive system will atrophy, since it’s not being fed, and therefore can’t properly carry out its activities.

Through experience, I also learned that the idea of food becomes difficult to stomach, relationships decay, and life in general becomes very difficult to cope with.

These symptoms sound terrifying – and they are. For anyone else, this would be more than enough motivation to do anything that would allow them to recover as soon as possible. For the most part this means drastically increasing food intake. And who wouldn’t want an excuse to eat more? Or be encouraged to eat whatever they want and as much as they want so that they can get back to a healthy weight?

For someone with an eating disorder, the prospect of eating and putting on even a few hundred grams is more terrifying than all of these things.

After a while, the process of eating becomes not only psychologically uncomfortable, but also physically painful, frequently leading to bloating, gas, constipation, and sometimes nausea.

A few months after I was diagnosed, I was due to start university at the age of 16. What was already to be a huge transition was made more difficult, as I was undergoing treatment. I began to blog about my experiences, more as a way of helping myself cope with it all, and to explain to those around me what it was like – since it was often confronting for them. I soon found that people started to approach me, and tell me that they were experiencing similar things. What scared me here was the state of their wellbeing, and how common it was. I certainly didn’t wish what I was feeling on anyone else.

At this stage, I was also developing an interest in molecular and microbiology, and by my second semester I had transferred to another university to pursue this. It wasn’t until my second year that I got to take my first microbiology course. While I was excited about everything I was going to learn, I never expected it to be more than an academic interest. I was lucky enough to have an incredible lecturer that pushed us to work hard and develop problem solving skills – and while normally I’d be overwhelmed by this, my increasing love of microbiology made me more determined to get through it. With this determination came the small but powerful push to try to get better, and the confidence to do things I was too afraid to do otherwise. While I still haven’t put on the weight, it at least encouraged me to eat enough to function at the level required – which was a big step.

This wasn’t the only benefit though. Because I was so keen to learn about microbiology, I started reading everything I could about it, and trying to stay up to date with new developments. Just over a year ago, the word “microbiome” started to pop up everywhere, and all of the sudden people were learning that the bacteria on, around, and in our bodies play a much larger role than previously thought. Studies into how it (particularly the microbiome of the gut) affects mood, depression, obesity, immunity, and many other aspects of health were being conducted. This led me to start asking about the effects of eating disorders on the microbiome, how this in turn affected the body, and how it could possibly lead to something that could help people suffering from eating disorders.

Recently, uBiome announced that they are collaborating with Dr. Cynthia M. Bulik at the University of North Carolina Centre of Excellence for Eating Disorders to attempt to answer some of these questions.

The gut microbiome has been shown to have significant impacts on the functioning of digestion, the immune system, and many other functions of the body. An imbalance of the microbiome can contribute to many diseases, and can allow selection for bacteria such as C. difficile – a bacterium commonly found in the gut which in high numbers is associated with ulcerative colitis. Bacteria deprived of nutrients can also begin to eat into the gut lining, and cause inflammation and problems in the gut – decreasing the ability to digest food properly and absorb nutrients.

This makes people with eating disorders particularly susceptible, since their food intake is insufficient to sustain their microbiome (not to mention themselves). Lack of nutrients taken in would drastically decrease both the diversity and abundance of microbes in the gut – sometimes permanently – and as described above, this can have serious consequences.

Studies into the role the gut microbiome plays in eating disorders and vice versa are therefore incredibly important and may lead to discoveries about what influences the development of eating disorders, likelihood of relapse, and insights into how to make the re-feeding process more comfortable. While it’s only early, and will likely take several studies to fully understand the relationship between eating disorders and the gut microbiome, this is a significant first step in the process, and one which will hopefully lead to new ways of helping to treat, or even cure them.

4 Thoughts on “Natasha's Story: Eating Disorders and the Microbiome”

  • Joe says:

    I think you are definitely on the right track in considering that the microbiome may be the root cause of your issues. We are quickly learning that loss of species and/or disruption of balances of good and bad bacteria (dysbosis) are leading to one human disease after another.

    How are we losing species and disrupting this ecosystem ? For sure, antibiotics are a primary culprit. While they save lives and are precious tools, they also have a downside, they are not benign. They’ve been called “carpet bombs” to this ecosystem of bacteria, the human microbiome.

    So, avoiding antibiotics is a positive step, when we can.

    But that’s not the whole picture. We need to re-examine everything in our lives and ask, “Is this harmful to my good bacteria ?” It’s very clear that our good bacteria play an enormous role in keeping us healthy.

    I’ll list a number of topics for you to consider and research : chlorine, mouthwash, toothpaste, emulsifiers, Roundup, over the counter products such as NSAIDS, and others, medicines such as PPIs and chloresterol meds, all sugars, processed foods and their additives, cosmetics, birth control pills, and more. The number of mistakes we are making are cause for concern

    You need to understand…….. we’ve approved a long list of products without testing whether or not they cause damage to our microbiome (our good helpful bacteria). This has been a serious mistake. Avoiding the above products might be a wise step forward.

    What are good things ? Fresh fruits and fresh vegetables are great, especially those indigestible carbohydrates which feed your good bacteria. Home fermentation of sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombachu, fermented fruit, miso, etc. are all good for your digestive bacteria ecosystem. Note however, for some diseases, such as IBS, these do not work well, as the intestinal microbiota is already is a very disrupted state. If your digestive system does not react negatively, then these are definitely encouraged.

    So, examine everything in your life and ask whether it might be harming your good bacteria, and then eliminate it. Then, do everything you can to feed your good bacteria. Fresh produce from those farmers markets are great and so is home fermented products (generally).

    Another tip ; get moving. It is well known that athletes have a more diverse microbiome, and greater diversity is associated with better overall health. So, exercising is good for you in more ways than one.

    That daily big salad, and other fresh vegetables are an important part of feeding your good bacteria, and restoring your health. Feed your good bacteria, starve your bad bacteria, this means staying away from processed foods with their added sugars, and avoid all products with sugars as well. Reduce you consumption of meat (livestock are fed Roundup ready corn, etc) The trouble is these roundup residues are disrupting the shiitake pathway, in our bacteria, in our gut. Sugars feed our bad bacteria.

  • Victoria says:

    Hi, Natasha’s sharing of her understanding and how she perceives eating disorders and the gut microbiome relationship gave me a thoughtful perspective on this topic. Even a relationship with food that is not considered an eating disorder may be a borderline eating disorder if someone is not giving consideration to how they will feel a few hours after they have eaten something. The long term effects develop based on habitual choices, or lack of thoughtful choices which then becomes habit. Thoughtful choices can only be made when someone has correct understanding of what works for them, and why, otherwise we’re just targets of consumer sales pitches.
    Anyone who has ever had to get up in front of a group to give a presentation, after consuming a meal that had more intense than usual “gastric consequences” (like a meal served that had milk products if the speaker were lactose-intolerant) can tell you that minding what you eat matters in the short term, so with microbiome research, more information is available long term as well.

  • Hi Natasha,
    CONGRATULATIONS on your progress in understanding so far, and your heart felt perspicacious desire to change. We are all in this together, this “journey of 1,000 miles” type adventure. Life is always giving us “micro-clue” like hints, and you found some great ones!!! 🙂 You are actively seeking “beyond the cutting edge” answers…The science of it all is great but remember the silent voice of your “Einstein like” subconscious is always there hinting… hinting to try something new… pushing you to inner personal greatness… calming the growing pains…You are on the right path… stay on the right path… you will get the right advice to help you get to where you want to go. You will meet the right people to help you reach your goals….CONGRAT’s again 🙂 Be aware though, any change brings friction at first….be it positive or negative… ..but as Zig Zigler said,… We can pay the price, or we can enjoy the price” CELEBRATE your enthusiasm… pat yourself on the back,… and start everyday by saying “It’s going to be a great day” Look into the other mindblowing new age science that is taking hold right now too… the Brain-Neuroplasticity movement that is all about retraining our brains so that we can be our best friend instead of our worst enemy. You CAN DO IT!!
    Watch your “Micro-Clues”
    Richard Curtin

  • Evelyn Leo says:

    I just wanted to commend Natasha on her courage to share her story and her perseverence in looking for reasons behind the condition. Kudos and good luck. We can all use your info to help others with eating disorders

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