What is driving your binge/purge cycle? Why is it that no matter how many times you tell yourself, Today will be the day, it never is? Please go easy on yourself. Your mind, body, and soul are simply trying to keep you alive. Once you really understand these contributing factors, you will be able to take a step back, be a powerful observer, and course correct toward freedom rather than into more bondage.
There are four primary and powerful factors driving your bulimia:
2. Substance Addiction
3. Behavioral Addiction
4. Pain Avoidance
Knowing there are strong forces at play will help you break down your recovery into bite sized pieces. Instead of making your goal to stop binging and purging, it might become addressing the reasons why you are binging and purging. Or a goal might be to create new, empowering, loving habits. Another might be to begin introducing more nutritious foods to your daily experience. This is a much more compassionate and effective approach. Rather than trying to stop your behaviors, first try to heal the underlying reasons bulimia is there in the first place.
Let’s look at each factor in some detail.
Restricting always precedes binging. It’s that simple. Every living being is programed to survive—your body is constantly searching for homeostasis. It wants balance. It yearns for consistency. When it senses a famine (modern day dieting), your body will do everything in its power to ensure you get enough food for survival. And built-in survival mechanisms are much more persuasive than mental willpower. When you restrict, you will soon become obsessed with food. Powerful urges to binge will follow, especially on energy dense and sugary foods. Your appetite will become insatiable.
That absolutely happened to me. In college, I would go to school on a cup of coffee sweetened with Equal. Lunch would be another coffee and a large muffin—chocolate chip preferably. I was never into sandwiches, soups, salads, or other “normal” lunch foods. Just a muffin. Eating only that item felt empowering somehow. When I stopped eating even the muffin and survived on coffee alone, I felt even more empowered. Starving myself felt like an accomplishment. By dinnertime I was so hungry, but still only allowed myself a normal sized meal. The caloric and nutrient intake was minimal and my hipbones began to stick out. This was even more empowering. Becoming an object to be watched, rather than a person to relate with felt safe. As long as I was skinny, I was secure. Of course this was all a precursor to bulimia—my survival instinct soon kicked in with a vengeance and both binge drinking and binge eating followed by purging became my coping strategies that second year in college.
Please understand you are not a bad woman. Any malnourished person would be driven to binge. It’s in your DNA. And anyone with the body image issues and perfectionism you suffer with would have to purge the binge. You began with restricting food. Your bulimia is simply trying to help you survive. Knowing this, can you have compassion on yourself? Can you even be grateful for your bulimia? It has been trying to save your life.
In the past, since food did not meet certain requirements, it was not classified as an addictive substance. However, new science has debunked this. Also, by one definition, addiction is “the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.”
Researchers rate the level of a substance’s addictive qualities based on the following criteria:
• To what extent does the substance activate the brain’s dopamine system?
• What levels of pleasure do users report the substance provides?
• Will a person trying the substance become easily hooked?
• What is the degree of withdrawal symptoms should a user cease using?
• How much physical or cognitive harm does the substance cause?
Let’s look at each piece as it relates to certain foods.
Dopamine system: New research shows the same pleasure centers in your brain that light up with cocaine or heroin use, also light up after eating sugar—in fact, the nucleus accumbens lights up like a Christmas tree. This is because sugar causes dopamine, the natural “feel good” chemical in the brain, to flood the neural receptors.
The same can be said for cheese. Dr. Neal Barnard, founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, calls cheese “dairy crack.” Why? One of the dairy proteins in cheese is casein, which breaks down into casomorphins during digestion. Dr. Barnard says, “These protein fragments can attach to the opiate receptors in your brain. As the name implies, casomorphins are casein-derived morphine-like compounds.”
With continual use of these addictive foods, our brains stop producing optimal levels of dopamine, so an outside reward system becomes necessary for us to simply feel a normal sense of wellbeing. Food becomes that reward system. By binging, you are simply trying to bring your brain chemistry back into balance.
Pleasure: What isn’t pleasing about sitting down to a great meal? In fact, breaking bread together has been a satisfying human ritual since the start of time. Food absolutely falls in the pleasure category. But not only for what it does to the taste buds and for social connections, it also causes a pleasing chemical reaction in your body. Similar to the dopamine effect, an increase in blood sugar levels makes you feel good. And it’s not just ingesting sugar itself that does this—processed foods filled with sweeteners and refined carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, and chips have a similar affect as they all effectively turn into sugar during digestion. Your brain sees the resulting spike in glucose as a reward, so you keep wanting more. If you eat these foods often, you’re unknowingly reinforcing that reward system. Eating becomes pleasing and refraining becomes painful. Food scientists even chemically exaggerate certain flavors to create irresistible taste sensations, which trigger the “bliss point”—an addictive reward pathway in the brain that keeps you going back for more.
Unfortunately, the resulting sugar surge causes your body to quickly move the glucose out of your bloodstream and into your cells for energy, so your pancreas excretes the hormone insulin to create balance. The result is a rapid change in blood sugar levels that can leave you shaky and in search of more pleasure inducing sweets, carbs, or cheese. Ham and pineapple pizza, anyone? Can you say “trifecta”?
Hooked easily: The body responds very differently to ingesting sugar or simple carbohydrates than it does to protein, fat, or complex carbs. And various people’s bodies also react differently to each. Some eat sugar, feel sick, and don’t want it again. Others can eat a moderate amount of it and stop effortlessly. Biologically, however, sugar does intensify food cravings and causes most people to eat more than they otherwise would. It disrupts normal food metabolism and can eventually lead to addiction.
Clearly in the case of those with eating disorders, we have been the unlucky ones who are easily hooked. Similar to the alcoholic whose one cocktail sends him into a drinking binge while his friend can have a few glasses and stop, we bulimics are prone to this sugar/insulin cycle becoming addictive. We are similar to the alcoholic, but sugar is our vice.
Have you said, I’ll just have one bite, when contemplating a dessert, only to find yourself licking the plate five minutes later? You were hooked easily. I’m surprised more people aren’t since thousands of years of survival programing urges us to seek out highly caloric foods. We are biologically programmed to eat hyper-palatable sweet and fatty foods and our bodies are designed to store the excess calories as fat to sustain us through times of famine. It’s a set up, I say! (The truth is that our DNA just hasn’t caught up to the industrial age where food is often so abundant and varied—much more so than our hunter/gatherer forefathers ever enjoyed.)
Withdrawal symptoms: Abstaining from addictive foods and unhealthy eating behaviors causes withdrawal symptoms for those with and without eating disorders. Many studies have shown that completely cutting sugar from your diet leads to similar withdrawal symptoms as those experienced by drug users. A pattern of sugar binge/deprivation causes the opioid and dopamine receptors in your brain to become sensitized, leading to withdrawal symptoms such as higher levels of depression, stress, anxiety, irritability, nervousness, and mood swings.
Harm caused: According to Paul van der Velpen, head of Amsterdam’s health service, “Sugar is the most dangerous and addictive substance of modern time, and more needs to be done in the interests of public health to make people aware of the many harms caused by this ubiquitous drug. The rise in obesity is also causing many other health concerns such as high cholesterol, metabolic syndrome, hypertension, sleep apnea, major depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and a host of other ailments.” So it does seem that sugar, sugary processed foods, and simple carbohydrates have levels of addictive qualities, based on this specified criteria, that rate fairly high.
I think back to my one muffin lunches. Even the stress of college could have been the trigger that created a need to “feel better”—and sugary Mr. Muffin was right there to soothe me. Muffins became a common binge food through my 20s, 30s, and into my 40s, and still call to me loudly.
Please know you are not a freak. Sugar really is an addictive substance, and your body is likely screaming for it. You are not just a person with zero resolve, zero will power, and therefore to you, zero character. There is a biological reason you haven’t been able to stop binging and purging. The good news is that biology will also play a huge role in your recovery.
What about the binges where you’re not even using sugar, highly processed, or carby foods? What about when you just want a few nuts, but end up eating the whole bag? While your body’s chemistry has played a leading role in keeping you stuck in your bulimia, there are also behavioral patterns contributing to the addiction.
According to Wikipedia, behavioral addiction “is a form of addiction that involves a compulsion to engage in a rewarding non-drug related behavior—sometimes called a natural reward—despite any negative consequences to the person’s physical, mental, social, or financial well-being. A gene transcription factor known as ΔFosB has been identified as a necessary common factor involved in both behavioral and drug addictions, which are associated with the same set of neural adaptations in the reward system.”
One of my behavioral addictions would kick in as I drove by certain cafes, restaurants, or food shops. I would simply deviate robotically, addictively. A totally taboo and forbidden shop under “normal” circumstances, like DQ, would yell to me as I approached. “Come in, come in! I know you want a large Cappuccino Skor Bar Blizzard®! I know you do.” Jesus. Shut the hell up. Keep driving, Lori. Don’t listen! But inevitably, the behavioral addiction would kick in. It had become a habit. I wouldn’t necessarily need a sugar high in that moment, but I just couldn’t seem to fight the loud, screaming invitation. Maybe you have similar habitual behaviors? Maybe you do them out of boredom. Maybe they delay you from having to dive into a taxing project. Maybe they just titillate the rebel in you. One thing we know for sure—behavioral addiction rages with bulimia.
A phenomenon called reward sensitivity can also keep you locked into your behavioral addiction. It is a measurable personality trait that determines how driven you are toward rewarding experiences and how easily, or not, you can refrain from them. Those with higher reward sensitivity have increased activity in the brain centers implicated in eating for reward purposes. This sensitivity makes a binge much harder to resist and behavioral addiction harder to break. Years of acquiescing to the urges have created deep, habit-forming neural pathways in your brain. The good news is that the more you resist the temptations and choose recovery, the more you can reroute these pathways. But that’s for later. For now, just understand that you are dealing with more than just the inability to stop binging and purging. There is a complex set of circumstances contributing to your eating disorder. But they don’t have to take you out. You can absolutely create new pathways in the brain, new chemistry in the blood, and new behaviors to replace the old, destructive ones.
There is also something to be grateful for—not only has your bulimia been fulfilling a biological need, it has also been helping you survive emotionally and even grow spiritually. Deepak Chopra said, “The journey out of addiction is the deepest spiritual journey a person can take.” This was certainly my experience. Even though it took me decades to get well, it was not wasted time. It was a time of deep spiritual inquiry, study, and growth. My guess is it has been the same for you. Your spirit is growing. Your soul is expanding. You are remembering who you are at your core. Try to be grateful for your bulimia. Refrain from words like, “I want to kill it, beat it, or hide it.” What if you could thank bulimia for serving you? What if you embraced it as your personal survival tool?
Eventually, you will be able to say good-bye with love, but for now, acceptance and gratitude are your super powers. We all keep things until they no longer serve their purpose. That day may be today. Or it might be tomorrow. Or next week. But one thing I know, there will be a day when you look back on your eating disorder with deep gratitude. On the other side of recovery, you will be an even more empathetic, intuitive, multi-dimensional, caring person than you would have been if you had never overcome an addiction.
Since my youth, I have acted out in one illicit behavior after another. This isn’t uncommon. The statistics show that most of those suffering with bulimia have also used many other substances or behaviors. Dr. Gabor Maté, a renowned doctor in the field of addictions and author of many books, including bestseller In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, says, “Addiction is simply pain avoidance.”
When I look back on life, I have tried to avoid feeling pain for as long as I can remember. There were a number of traumatic childhood, teenage, and even adulthood incidents that I never processed. We all have them. Your painful experiences will be different than mine, but the point is we are all bruised bananas. And since you were probably not taught to identify, feel, and release your pain in a healthy way either, you have sought things outside yourself to ease or numb the feelings.
In the end, no pain avoidance strategies worked as well as food seemed to. Lord knows, I used many other things—cigarettes, booze, drugs, people, sex, money, success, shopping, travel, exercise—but bulimia held me tightest in its grips, trying to cocoon me from the outside world and shield me from my inner anxiety. When the emotional pain or anxiety became acute, even the thought of using food to numb the feelings penetrated my stress. A huge amount of mental dialogue would follow.
My Ed (short for eating disorder) was a seemingly separate voice, but was fully my own. That voice would tempt me with some food item, which my higher self would refuse. Then
Ed would go on to tell me I’m useless and should be way farther along in life than I was. It would tell me I’d never find a mate to share life with—that it would always just be my dog and me. It would accuse me of being pathetic, a child. What kind of grown woman goes into panic attacks in the grocery store? I would fight back, but my punches would get increasingly feeble until eventually my feelings would start to spiral. I believed Ed’s rhetoric and food became the only way to ease the anxiety. Inevitably, that first food item would turn into another and then another. The robotic binge would be well underway. Does this sound familiar? The dialogue may have been slightly different in each incident, but the outcome was always the same. I would give in to bulimia in order to ease the mental pain.
Once I had decided to act out, the ritual of the binge (planning, preparation, and execution) became automatic. If there was no food in the fridge, which there rarely was, the planning and preparation stage would include fantasizing about what I was going to eat then heading to a grocery store, restaurant, or fast food joint to pick up my poison. I bought enough food to feed a family. “I’m going to be the hero when I get home,” would often be my comment to the checkout clerk or order taker. Looking down at the volumes of binge food was always somewhat embarrassing, so I had to let them know it was not all for me! “Can I please have four sets of chopsticks?” (or forks, straws, spoons—whatever the appropriate utensil for the food choices) was also a common cover-up line. I always wondered if they saw through the B.S. and into my pain.
Once the feeding frenzy actually started, my emotional angst would subside even further. But not totally—it was only after the subsequent purge, that my mind would finally go quiet. The purge brought peace. Every time, but never for long.
Has your bulimia been a Band-Aid for pain? I have to let you in on a little secret: it will never work. It’s like trying to suture a puss infected wound. When you really understand the concept of pain avoidance, it will became clear that if you first heal the underlying pain, there will be no need for the Band-Aid of bulimia. You have been lovingly approaching it backwards—trying to take the Band-Aid off first (quitting behaviors). Ironically, that’s wildly more painful than actually working through the pain in the first place. It also causes so much more shame. First acknowledge, explore, and heal the pain you’ve been trying to avoid, and then the behaviors will subside much more gently and successfully.
Here’s to your recovery!
Love and light,