Autoimmune Diseases And Eating Disorders: A Bidirectional Relationship?

Unpacking the link between the immune system and disordered eating habits.


During the winter months, “immunity” is a term we hear time and time again. With the effects of the pandemic still looming and flu season on the rise – It’s prime time to home in on self-care and make a conscious effort to look after your immune system. Whether it be specific supplements or general lifestyle changes – there are several ways to nurture your health around this time of year.  
However, for those of us who suffer from an autoimmune disease, giving our body a much-needed immune “boost” isn’t as clear-cut. In case you don’t know, autoimmunity refers to a range of conditions in which the body attacks its own tissue, damaging healthy cells.  
There are several types of autoimmune diseases including: type 1 diabetes, psoriasis, and inflammatory bowel disease. While the severity and effects of each chronic illness will vary - there are specific conditions which rely heavily on dietary changes as part of treatment. This, in turn can cause serious long-term health impacts, both physically and psychologically - hindering the patient’s relationship with food.  
For example, coeliac disease requires the removal of gluten from the diet (a common protein found in most carbohydrate sources, such as wheat, barley, and rye). While the two major forms of IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) – Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, often require diligent monitoring of eating habits, which can trigger a restrictive mentality when it comes to food.  
The idea that “everything should be enjoyed in moderation” and no food should be labeled as “good” or “bad” is incredibly problematic for people who suffer from any kind of allergy, intolerance, or dietary-related condition. When a certain meal or ingredient can manifest itself into physical, painful symptoms – it indefinitely becomes a “bad” food that the patient will seek to avoid at all costs.  
Now, this is human nature – it’s our instinct to want to protect ourselves from something that might harm us. However, it’s imperative to be able to recognize when things have gone too far.

Fear Outweighs Enjoyment

If the anxiety you have around food begins to consume your everyday life, the symptoms of your autoimmune condition are likely to be exacerbated due to increased stress and raised cortisol levels.  

The desire to drastically limit food intake or stop eating certain foods all-together can trigger a toxic binge-restrict cycle. Some may use this as a coping mechanism to deal with the stress of such conditions; particularly those which are gastrointestinal. However, falling into this vicious cycle long-term can severely damage your health.  
While in the moment, you may feel a temporary sense of control over food and your symptoms – ultimately, this will only instill more fear in you, as you try to live with your illness long-term.

Your Mental Health Is Suffering

When dealing with an autoimmune disease, your mental well-being will face a multitude of hurdles, as you try to come to terms with your diagnosis.  
Not only is facing a chronic illness incredibly daunting – when food becomes an integral part of how you manage that illness, it can be extremely difficult not to become consumed or obsessed by what you eat on a day-to-day basis.  
The relationship between autoimmunity and disordered eating habits is reciprocal. The two go hand in hand, often overlapping each other, when it comes to showing signs of physical and psychological symptoms.  

Adopting a holistic approach to your recovery is key in tackling the mental impacts that these health issues can cause. It’s important to let your medical team know if you are engaging in disordered eating patterns such as: bingeing, purging, or strict dieting.  
Speaking out openly and honestly with the professionals will ensure that you receive the correct treatment for your needs. Never underestimate the psychological trauma that an autoimmune disease can cause – by addressing your feelings head on, you will remove the stigma and secrecy, which is often associated with these conditions.

You Avoid Social Events

When coping with a chronic illness, it’s completely understandable that some days you are going to feel out of sorts and will simply want to rest – rather than socializing. However, if you start to avoid or decline social events based on your fear around food, it’s time to address the situation. 
You might be fixated on the feeling of guilt, following the consumption of certain foods - or you might have anxiety about an impending flare-up or episode, if you eat something that’s out of the “norm” of your usual routine
When attempting to combat these fears, start by slowly introducing “bad” foods into your routine, every now and again. This will allow you to pin-point what works for you when it comes to managing your symptoms, as well as helping to break up the monotony of your eating habits. You never know, foods that you once considered to be “off-limits” might be more tolerable now - it’s all about trial and error. 

The key is to always be kind to yourself – dealing with an autoimmune disease can be a tumultuous journey, which will vary for everyone.  
Being at peace with your nutrition may take a while, but don’t lose hope. Always take one step at a time and think about the bigger picture – you got this.  


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