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Gut bacteria, eating disorders and the role of mindfulness

Gut bacteria have a remarkable effect on our eating behaviour. The more of them there are, the greater the variety and the more competition between them to survive. This, in turn, means they have less influence on our food choices.

On the other hand, the less diversity there is in our gut microbiota the greater their influence on our food choices. Unfortunately, this usually results in cravings for high fat and sugary foods, which of course contribute to obesity. (1)

Given the strong influence of gut bacteria on our eating behaviour, it is perhaps not surprising that gut microbiota can help us understand how eating disorders progress. Those of new-born babies, for instance, determine their susceptibility to developing such disorders. Good bacteria in their gut lay the foundation for a balanced physiological response to emotional upsets and difficult life circumstances.

However, early life or continued stresses can alter such colonies of gut bacteria, which moderate our primary stress response mode through what is known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). A healthy gut microbiome ensures that the HPA does not overreact with a heightened and acute stress reaction.

Therefore, if we can establish a healthy gut microbiome, which regulates the HPA response to stress, we will not be physiologically driven to cope with stress through unhelpful eating behaviours.

It is important to note than eating disorders are characterised by two biological factors, namely reduced appetite control and inaccurate perception of fullness. These factors are strongly impacted by the psychological conditions contributing to eating disorders.

It has in fact been found that 40-60% of individuals with psychiatric symptoms also have diagnosed gastrointestinal issues, and 50% of psychiatric patients have irritable bowel syndrome. (2) This demonstrates the connection between the gut and the brain in the causation of eating disorders.

Mindfulness has been shown to have positive outcomes for eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa and binge eating. Furthermore, a variety of mindfulness techniques have contributed positively to eating disorder outcomes. For example, in the case of bingeing, an effective way to deal with cravings is to combine mindfulness practise with emotional regulation and increasing tolerance to distress. (3)

Mindfulness helps disordered eating by bringing one into present moment awareness, which calms the sympathetic nervous system and provides stress relief. This enables conscious choices rather than those that are emotionally driven, thereby putting a break on the cycle of disordered eating. It also gives back control over thinking mindset and behaviour.

Mindful nutrition happens when one is fully present in the activity of eating. Awareness about what one is eating is raised, allowing for the full appreciation and experience of food visually and how it tastes and smells. One also acknowledges where the food comes from and is grateful for those who worked hard in its production.

Importantly, practising mindful nutrition is also about withholding self-judgement about what one eats and labelling foods as good or bad. Instead, one appreciates the pleasure derived from food and eating and enjoys the moment and experience it brings.

As one becomes mindful of food, one becomes more aware of changes and sensations in the body and the associated feelings that eating certain foods can cause, as well as the impact this has on one’s mental health and response to stress. This knowledge equips one to start moving away from disordered eating and make more informed decisions about how one uses food to deal with distress.

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