I was diagnosed with osteoporosis in my early twenties. Why were my young bones already losing tissue? Women who struggle with anorexia nervosa, like me at the time, are at a higher risk of developing the disease.
I also believe that my eating disorder may have contributed to my sluggish thyroid. Many people don’t realize that malnutrition in patients with eating disorders can lead to abnormal thyroid function.
An eating disorder is a serious, life-threatening mental illness that directly impacts every part of your body, from the hair on your head to the tips of your toes, and everything in between. After all, an eating disorder impacts eating, and, truly, we are what we eat.
Some additional physical effects of eating disordered behaviors are listed below.
- Hair loss or thinning hair
- Dry and brittle nails
- Menstrual irregularities, which can contribute to bone loss
- Baby fine hair (lanugo) covering the body
Bingeing and/or purging:
- Swollen salivary glands (appearance of “chipmunk cheeks”)
- Sore throats and hoarse voice
- Tooth decay
- Acid reflux
Restricting as well as bingeing and/or purging:
- Gastrointestinal problems like stomach pain and bloating, bacterial infections, and slowed digestion called gastroparesis
- Cardiovascular issues, including heart failure (Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. About half of these are sudden cardiac deaths.)
Our mind impacts our body
Over ten years after entering treatment for my eating disorder, I embarked on my second recovery. This time, I was battling posttraumatic stress disorder, PTSD. Since I no longer struggled with eating (full recovery is possible), I didn’t think that PTSD would impact my physical health quite as much. Boy, was I wrong!
The chronic stress put on my body by PTSD took a serious toll. I developed a laundry list of physical problems, ones that I had never struggled with before, including costochondritis (a fancy word for inflammation of the cartilage in the rib cage), shoulder pain, recurrent high fevers, perturbed thyroid hormones (once again), interstitial cystitis (bladder pain), lower back pain, among many others.
The following are just a few of the physical problems associated with PTSD:
- Musculoskeletal problems like chronic pain
- Gastrointestinal issues like bloating, heartburn, indigestion, gas, acid reflux and other irritable bowel problems
- Cardiovascular problems
- Compromised immune function
When I entered a treatment program for PTSD, I was surprised that, like me, every single patient suffered from back pain. Our group even began informal research, as we’d ask each new person who admitted, “Do you have back pain, too?”
According to one study, the National Center for PTSD reports that 51% of patients with chronic low back pain also have PTSD symptoms.
The National Center for PTSD also shares that approximately 15% to 35% of patients with chronic pain have concurrent PTSD. Interestingly, only 2% of people who don’t have chronic pain have PTSD.
For some with PTSD, chronic pain is a direct result of their trauma (e.g., car accident or assault). Here, the pain can serve as a reminder of the traumatic event, which can understandably exacerbate PTSD.
Our body impacts our mind
So, in the same way, that our mental health can impact our body, our physical health affects our mental health. When I developed all of those physical problems related to PTSD, you can imagine that I became even more depressed and anxious.
Cancer diagnosis and treatment can be accompanied by increases in anxiety and depressive symptoms. Diabetes can do the same. And, let’s not forget about anger and fear, which can come along for the ride with many physical illnesses.
Our mind and body are one
This National Women’s Health Week, let’s not forget that mental health is inextricably linked to physical health. As another example, PTSD and eating disorders both actually change the brain, which is the most complex organ in the body. Research is currently underway that will help us to view mental health disorders through a lens of biological markers, rather than symptoms.
In an attempt to heal my body during PTSD recovery, I went back and forth to doctors. Think cortisone shots, physical therapy, chiropractor adjustments, and more. I spent thousands of dollars on these experts when, for me, what I really needed to focus more on was recovering from PTSD.
In my personal experience, the physical problems, including most of the chronic pain, went away with PTSD treatment and recovery. Essentially, I needed to check myself into mental health treatment in order to heal my lower back. That said, there is, of course, a place for medical doctors and others in healing physical pain.
Today, I see a doctor who is helping immensely with a bit of lingering shoulder pain.
Importantly, like eating disorders, PTSD is not a life sentence. While trauma doesn’t go away (it’s history), with treatment, PTSD can heal.
What about my osteoporosis? It’s gone. My doctor said that food was the best medicine. Today, my bones, like my mind, are strong and healthy.
Remembering mind, body, and spirit
Let’s not forget about the spirit, which, for me, was a big part of becoming whole and healthy. Spiritual concepts like a belief in a higher power and letting go are what fueled my hope that healing in all realms—the physical and mental—was possible.
This National Women’s Health Week, what steps can you take to better your health?
A Senior Fellow with The Meadows and advocate for its specialty eating disorders program, The Meadows Ranch, Jenni Schaefer is a bestselling author and sought-after speaker. For more information: www.JenniSchaefer.com
About Senior Fellow Jenni Schaefer
Jenni Schaefer graduated summa cum laude from Texas A&M University with a degree in biochemistry, and she knows firsthand the devastating consequences of an eating disorder. Since recovering from her own eating disorder, she has carried her message of self-acceptance and triumph over adversity to the public.
Jenni is the author of several books, including Life Without Ed: How One Woman Declared Independence from Her Eating Disorder and How You Can Too, and she has contributed to anthologies like the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. A sought-after speaker on addiction and food disorders, relationships, depression, and career, Jenni has appeared on Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, the TODAY show and Entertainment Tonight, as well as in print coverage from Cosmopolitan and The New York Times. She is also a blogger for The Huffington Post, and her work has appeared in Publisher’s Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, Glamour, Shape, The Washington Times, Woman’s World, Seventeen, and more.