What is happening with my stomach?: The not-so-glamorous parts of recovery

A few weeks ago, I posted about my recovery journey and I got an influx of messages from people in recovery, people who want to recover, people who have a family member/partner/friend who wants to recover. And I got a lot of questions. But by far, the most common question I got was something along the lines of what the hell is happening with my stomach?

Stomach issues. No one gets through recovery without dealing with some sort of abdominal distress, constipation, gas, bloating, etc (that I know of). And obviously, these are not the most glamorous issues to talk about. Nobody loves talking about their bodily functions- except, of course, dietitians, luckily for you guys! So I’m going to dive into some of the most difficult parts of recovery that I went through as it pertains to my tummy.

Bloating

The big bad bloat! Bloating is by far one of the most common and most uncomfortable parts of recovery. Bloating starts on day one and many times, it doesn’t go away for months. Some of that bloat is tummy bloat of course. But it frequently, it can feel like a full body experience- and in some ways it is. Swelling happens because your body is trying to repair itself. Think of a sprained ankle. It swells while it heals. That’s what happens to your body- it swells while it heals. And by far one of the most common places damage has been done is the gastrointestinal tract. For many people who have battled eating disorders, you’ve spent years restricting/purging/abusing your digestive system. For those of us who had restrictive eating disorders, our digestive tracts are not used to processing foods- especially so many different foods that we are presented with in recovery. Our bodies have to work harder and to readjust to eating a mix of foods again. Same logic for those who have been purging- you’re now asking your body to do a different thing it isn’t used to. So it’s going to take some time for it to readjust. Be patient and keep eating. Whatever you do, do not think “Oh, I’m bloated so I’m just going to eat fruits/vegetables/’healthy’ things”- more often than not, those things are just going to increase your bloat. Your best bet when you’re feeling super bloated and uncomfortable is to stick to more processed, less fibrous foods. THIS POST by Amalie Lee explains it really well. Keep eating and it will get better!

Stomach Pain/Gas

Stomach pain is real during recovery. I dealt with it often. And I have the same general explanation as the one above. Your body isn’t used to everything that’s happening when you start eating again. Your digestive system is not used to working so hard- and oftentimes, the muscles have actually gotten weaker. It’s been on vacation for however long you restricted/used ED behaviors and quite honestly, it’s still a bit tired. Many times, it has to do with gas (oh the wonders of recovery). There’s a lot of gas in the first stages of recovery. There just is. Hopefully you live with people you can joke about it with; it’s much easier that way. The stomach pains and gas will go away, it just takes time to rebuild and strengthen those muscles. In my experience, it passes a bit sooner than the bloating. There are still particular foods that I restricted during my ED days that cause my a stomachache when I eat them- but those are few and far between compared to what they used to be like. Some tips for dealing with stomachaches:

  • Ginger or peppermint tea always help settle my stomach.
  • A warm compress- like these ones my sister makes over at Payne and Comfort (no, I did not intend for this to be an ad for her but I did use it a lot with stomach pain and still do).
  • Laying on my right side usually helps move some things around and makes me a little more comfortable.
  • Tracing the outline of my colon- stay with me here. I learned this from a dietitian I worked with during my internship, who said she learned it as a pediatric dietitian- but still useful for adults. Put you fingers on your lower right stomach, right above the hip. Tap your fingers all the way up to under your ribcage, across to the other side and then back down the left side. That’s the general area where your large intestine is and it usually helps move stuff through- or at the very least, it feels kinda nice and makes me feel like I’m doing something to improve my stomach aches.

Heartburn/Acid Reflux/Indigestion

This is something I dealt with a lot but honestly, it’s gotten better with recovery. I’ve always had issues with acid reflux, especially during my ED days, but it’s a common symptom during recovery as well. I don’t have a clear answer as to why this is but most people think it’s something to do with the fact that your digestion as a person in recovery is way slower than the average person’s- usually double or triple the average time it takes for someone to digest. Again, those muscles have atrophied and aren’t as efficient as they once were. They can get back there but they need to be exercised to get stronger- so think of every meal as a workout for your digestive system. They get a little stronger each day, but it doesn’t happen overnight (just like any other part of your body). However, because of this, food sits in your stomach longer and there’s more opportunity for heartburn/indigestion. It is uncomfortable- tips I have include more ginger/herbal teas, sitting upright for at least an hour after a meal, not drinking coffee/caffeine if I’m experiencing reflux already and avoiding alcohol while symptoms persist. Occasionally, I will take a Tums if things are really uncomfortable but I try not to rely on them too much- same goes with any other OTC heartburn remedy. These things will usually pass on their own, you just have to give it some time!

Diarrhea/Constipation

Saved the best for last! When you start eating more in recovery, you are most likely going to experience diarrhea and/or constipation at different points. When you first start eating again, your body more likely than not is not going to be able to figure how to process things right away so you may experience more bowel movements than normal. On the flip side, your sluggish digestive system may also be like screw this, I am not going to digest anything and you may end up constipated. Both of these things are normal, both of these things are okay, and both of these things will pass if you keep eating. One thing worth noting is that I had horrible constipation nearly my whole life. It was a joke with my family, my friends and my partner. So to all my sisters with constipation I feel you and I have been there. But since recovery, I have had maybe one or two instances of constipation, if that. I always thought that this issue was just genetic, just how my body was but it turns out it was a symptom of restriction. This was, by far, one of the best things that happened during my recovery as constipation literally plagued me before.

The bottom line is all of these things will get better. Be patient and keep going!

Have other questions you want me to answer? Send me an email [email protected] or leave a comment here!

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