There is a strong connection between trauma and disordered eating and it lies in our nervous system.
In our Autonomic Nervous System, the parasympathetic Freeze/shutdown response is like a hibernation - the body stores what resources it can to help us survive. This response also releases cortisol, which is an appetite stimulant causing us to want to eat more.
The Sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive which can deplete our stored energy. When our fat stores run out, the body uses muscle, and organ tissue as fuel. The fight and flight responses that can happen in our sympathetic nervous system, also releases adrenaline, which is an appetite suppressant.
Trauma survivors can cycle between these extremes.
The fawn response of the nervous system is when we fall into the people-pleasing behaviors that avoid conflict and help us establish an internal sense of safety. The Fawn response is a combination of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system these responses and can cause hibernation or depletion or cycles of both.
The Vagus Nerve/Gut connection is immense.
80% of the communication between the vagus nerve and the gut runs from the body to the brain.
- The vagus nerve is highly connected to the walls of our intestines. This is why the gut is sometimes called our “second brain.”
- The digestive system is monitored by our neuroception which chooses our neural state based on danger or safety signals.
- Our microbiome is one of the most significant sources of information for our neuroception.
20% of the communication Vagus nerve and the gut runs from the brain to the body.
- In freeze, the dorsal vagus shuts down our digestive system, often resulting in constipation and discomfort or pain.
- In fight/flight, our sympathetic system triggers the digestive system to speed up, often causing gas or loose bowels.
- When we are in safe mode, our ventral vagal influences our digestive system to move things along at a rhythmic pace.
Disordered eating is a trauma response.
When the nervous system is overwhelmed, the body changes it’s physiological processes to focus on protection. This often leads to eating much more or much less than what our body needs to function. When we get stuck in one of these extremes or when we cycle between them, shame stories and social messaging about body size can encourage us to stay in that pattern.
Healing disordered eating requires attention to both the social stories we carry about body size and the balance of the nervous system.
When the body says no to food
It’s common to not want to eat when we are stressed. This is because the freeze/shutdown response literally shuts down the gut. In this state, the body stops producing hunger hormones and digestive enzymes and the muscles of the intestines stop moving too.
Safety enables digestion. Most people need a calm environment to be able to eat and absorb the nutrients from food. Some things that can help wake up the digestive system include: proprioceptive stimulation, movement, focused breathing, and cider vinegar or lemon juice.
Why we binge
There are several common reasons why we binge eat. Bingeing is often a reaction to previous restriction. As a solution, some nutritionists recommend ditching all dietary restrictions and instead learning to trust the body’s hunger and safety cues.
Binging can also be a distraction from unmet needs or a way soothing overwhelming emotions. Instead of trying to stop binging by force, it is easier to find the unmet need or overwhelming emotion and address that so that the body no longer feels it news to use this behavior to survive.
Why sexual trauma changes our relationship to food
In some studies, over 50% of people with eating disorders reported past sexual trauma. Studies also show a clear link between childhood sexual trauma and eating disorders.
Boundary violations are sensed and processed in the gut. Sexual boundary violations in particular tend to cause pelvic tension, as well as a need for control over food and/or a need for comfort from food.
Food Power Struggles cause attachment ruptures
Power struggles with food are a common source of childhood trauma. External enforcement of food rules can be felt by the nervous system as an overwhelming attack on autonomy.
Guilt and shame about food can harm our attachment relationship with self. Developing a healthy relationship with food can help us towards secure attachment with self.
Why is understanding the connection between our nervous system and disordered eating so important?
Understanding the connection between how trauma affects our nervous system and disordered eating is essential in the healing process. Many people find themselves cycling in a powerless feeling of restriction, excessive exercise, and/or binging. When we begin to understand why our body may be responding (or not responding) to cues it can reduce shame and validate the adaptive ways your body survived overwhelming experiences. Trauma work is an essential part of healing from disordered eating. Knowledge is power! With knowledge and support you can begin to build a new relationship with not only food, but also with your body.