Q. I binged and purged in college and took a lot of over-the-counter diet drugs. I'm in my 40s now and have been diagnosed with digestive and autoimmune disorders. I can't help wondering: Did the poor health habits of my youth mess up my middle age?
— Robin Mickler, Waukesha, Wisconsin
A. We get only one body, and just about any trauma it experiences, from wound to infection, leaves a mark. Bingeing and purging can cause anemia, irregular heartbeat, fluctuations in hormones, inflammation, cavities, gum disease, loss of bone density, and depression, just to name a few of the adverse effects. Clearly tooth problems and weaker bones could plague you years down the road, but you may have also set yourself up for kidney damage and heart disease.
The most important question you face now is less about your past and more about the steps you can take to undo some of the problems you're experiencing. Your autoimmune condition probably requires drug treatment, but choosing foods that reduce inflammation will be helpful as well. I recommend avoiding or cutting down on fried and highly processed foods, and specifically limiting intake of saturated and trans fats, which encourage the body to build hormones that cause inflammation. Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables, and get unsaturated oils from olives, avocados, nuts, and seeds. Place particular emphasis on anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats from fish and seafood or a daily pill. Get moderate exercise and about eight hours of sleep a night. These measures could help ease your GI troubles as well, but you might also consider taking a daily probiotic—a supplement that contains beneficial bacteria. Although more and more foods, like yogurt and breakfast cereals, offer probiotics, a pill may be the best way to get quick results. Bodies accumulate wear and tear, like any machine. But they're uniquely forgiving and resilient, and unlike any other machine, they can heal. Give yours every chance to do so, and look forward, not back.