Emotional Eating & The Digestive System

Emotional Eating & The Digestive System

If there was ever a time that people are wanting their ‘creature comforts’ it is now.  Living in the middle of a pandemic, so many of us are feeling much uncertainty and isolation.  This is a time when addictive behaviours are soaring.  And it is true that we do need to find ways to give ourselves more comfort and solace.  Those of us who have typically used food as our go-to comfort are most likely turning to food more than ever before.  Emotional, disordered eating is not only harmful for our mental and emotional health…it takes its toll on our physical health as well, particularly on our digestive system.  It becomes a vicious cycle.  As our digestive function is compromised, an imbalance of the gut flora results in a lack of proper signalling from neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which affects us emotionally and mentally.

Emotional eating’ is a term that applies to any type of disordered eating patterns – including compulsive eating, overeating, dieting then bingeing, bulimia, anorexia, sneaking or hiding food, &  more.  Emotional eating means eating for emotional reasons rather than for nourishing the body.  There are feelings going on that we may or may not be aware of, that propel us to reach for food.  Examples of these feelings may be loneliness, sadness, fear, anger, guilt, depression, stress or generalized anxiety.  With emotional eating, food is used in order to “stuff down” painful emotions, to attempt to “fill up” an emptiness inside, to somehow alleviate our emotional discomfort.

Let’s talk about what happens in our body.  Our digestive system is, of course, greatly affected by what we eat, how we eat it, how much we eat and how often we eat.  When we eat for emotional reasons rather than for nourishment, we are usually oblivious to HOW we are eating.

Let’s use overeating as an example, as it is extremely common and often condoned in our society.  ie:  “go on, have another piece of cake”.

The following are commonly associated with emotional overeating:

  • The food chosen for emotional eating is often sweet & sugary and /or high-bad fats.
  • With each bite there is too much food on the fork or spoon, so too much goes into the mouth.
  • Eating will probably be too fast, meaning one bite after the other is forced down too quickly.
  • With fast eating, chewing is compromised and much of the food will be unchewed and  undigested.
  • Eating until full, and often over-full.  (Ideal is 80% full, leaving 20% room for digestion)

All of these habits place extra burdens on the digestive system.

Here are a few examples of how emotional eating affects our digestive system.

* The high-sugar or high-“bad fat” foods are detrimental to our health and make our digestive organs such as the liver and pancreas have to work harder.

* Forcing ‘too much’ food at once into the mouth and down the esophagus, plus eating until you are full or over-full, puts extra pressure on the LES (lower esophageal sphincter), the valve at the junction of the esophagus and the stomach, forcing it to open wider than it is meant to and for longer periods of time.  This can lead to acid reflux conditions such as GERD (gastrointestinal esophageal reflux disease), where the LES valve has become so lax that acid from the stomach will make its way upward into the esophagus, which can be damaging to the sensitive tissues of esophagus.  GERD affects over 20% of people in our western culture.

* Lack of thorough chewing means that solid food must make its way through the entire digestive system.  Contrary to what many may think, the stomach is not this machine that can break down all solid chunks of food that have not been chewed thoroughly.

* By the time the food reaches the small intestine, it is in liquid form and ready to be absorbed.  This liquid,  called chyme, then moves from the small intestine into the colon via the ileo-cecal valve.  This is a one-way valve that is meant to stay closed, and opens only when needed.  If there are solid pieces of unchewed, undigested food entering the colon, then this valve is forced to open wider than usual and/or for longer than usual.  This situation can allow contents of the colon to go back into the small intestine, which is the wrong way through this one-way valve.  The colon contents are too toxic and acidic for the more alkaline and delicate tissues of the small intestine, and ill health can result.

* Overeating compromises the proper function and health of the colon.  It can lead to spastic areas, distention, prolapse, and lack of muscle tone, which all contribute to constipation.

It has been said that how we eat and digest our food can be seen as a microcosm of ‘how we digest life’.

I have found this to be very true in my personal experience.

Working through and resolving emotional eating issues is imperative for emotional, mental and physical health. The rewards to be gained of improved health and well-being are well worth it.

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