Can’t Eat When You Break Up? Investigating the Gut-Brain Response

We often find what we need to find when we’re not looking for it. That’s how it was for me recently, spending a lazy Sunday afternoon searching the scientific literature for research related to “communication about feelings” (isn’t that what everyone does on Sundays?).

Instead of finding research related to how people talk or avoid talking about their feelings, I found myself taken in by the first result: an article published in a 2011 issue of Nature (specifically their neuroscience reviews)titled “Gut feelings: the emerging biology of gut-brain communication”.

I was intrigued for two reasons: (1) one of my good friends, who also happens to be a neuroscientist, often talks about gut decisions (they are not always the ‘right’ decisions to make but they deserve attention); and (2) I had recently talked with a friend about some of my own gut-brain-emotional responses and it left me with a nagging question.

What happened is this: I had shared a story about how, when I was 19, I lost my appetite for a week. I was healthy and happy with life except that I had ended a relationship with someone who I liked, but didn’t want to be with anymore, and I felt badly about it. The pain of hurting another person was, for me, so painful that my stomach hurt and I couldn’t eat, a result of my overly sensitive and overly empathic nature in which I took in his perceived pain and made it my own (in reality, I’m sure he was just fine). So there I was, relatively unable to eat normally except for the lucky fact that my body was adaptive enough to crave a specific food each day. For the first few days, the only food I could bare to eat was watermelon. For the days that followed, it was a specific muffin from a specific bakery. After about a week, time healed, my appetite returned, and I pretty much forgot about this odd gut-brain reaction.

That is, I forgot until the next time I found myself ending a relationship and once again losing my appetite. This came to be a cycle that repeated itself during times when I was ready to break up with someone or experiencing sufficient relationship distress. I didn’t lose my appetite for days at a time due to any other type of stress, I told my friend, just relationship distress.

“What about drinking?” he asked, as I sipped from a tasty drink at a favorite bar. “Did you ever lose your appetite for certain drinks?”

And it occurred to me that I hadn’t. Yet the scientist in me couldn’t figure out why I would so routinely and consistently lose my appetite for food but never any type of alcohol.

Reading the Nature piece today has provided me with some sense of my own gut-brain connection, and perhaps – if you’ve experienced appetite issues in response to relationship distress, it may for you too. It seems that there’s a growing and fascinating area of research related to interactions between our gut (e.g., appetite, GI function, etc) and our brain (e.g., thoughts, memories, decision making, and emotions).

The article reviewed scientific findings related to the gut/brain that lead me to believe that the following – at least for me – may have happened:

1. When I was 19 and had my first significant break-up, I had a fairly typical stress response of changes to eating patterns.

2. Relationship-related distress is rare enough for me – and I am a highly sensitive/empathic person – and thus “memories of body states associated with previous feeling states” (this, from the article) perhaps became linked. That is, relationship distress is, for me, connected with loss of appetite going back to my first significant breakup.

3. Because I wasn’t really drinking alcohol very often at age 18 or 19, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to want a drink, let alone to lose my appetite for a drink. Thus, I had no alcohol-related appetite loss in relation to relationship distress at the time, and it’s never become part of how I deal with this now.

I mention this because, in a recent class discussion about love, breakups, and communication, my students talked a bit about changes to eating patterns when faced with heartbreak. Some students talked about drinking more alcohol, or taking various drugs or pain medications, after a breakup. Other students talked about eating more than usual or less than usual when going through difficult relationship issues. It’s common to experience changes related to eating (and to sleep) in response to relationship issues. However, we have idiosyncratic patterns and the Nature article helped me to understand the numerous pathways that may be possible in creating these connections and establishing individuals’ patterns related to appetite, eating behaviors and their memories and emotions. I liked this part of the article:

  “…body loops, or their meta-representations in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), may play a part not only in how somebody feels at a given moment but may also influence future planning and intuitive decision making. For example, according to Damasio, somatic markers may covertly result in ‘undeliberated inhibition of a response learned previously … [or] the introduction of a bias in the selection of an aversive or appetitive mode of behavior’””

My pattern of appetite loss is specific to me – and because it’s so predictable, when it happens at all I experience it as an annoyance more than anything, since I like to eat and just want to get the whole “appetite loss” thing over with. I’ve also found that, for me, the appetite loss is linked with feeling bad about hurting another person. I can manage relationship distress. I can manage break-ups. But, going back to childhood, I’ve always found it painful to do things that break another person’s heart.

There’s nothing to “do” here; meaning, this isn’t a “5 Tips” or “10 Steps” piece. But if you find yourself interested in the topic, and have a science-y background, you may find the article to be an interesting read. And if you experience gut-related symptoms in response to relationship or sexuality issues, you might look for patterns in your own past, and memories, to see how a gut-brain reaction may have developed.

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About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at www.sexualhealth.indiana.edu.