Interoceptive awareness is a term you may not have heard of but is vital to eating and regulating our bodies. Simply said, interoceptive awareness is the ability to accurately interpret what the body is experiencing, like thirst, hunger, and fullness. The formal definition is the ability to sense and understand internal bodily sensations. It is the process by which we become aware of our physiological needs, such as hunger, thirst, and feeling cold. It also plays a role in emotional regulation.
Interoception is quite a complex process that involves integrating sensory information from various sources, including the vagus nerve, the dorsal horn of the spinal cord, and the insula. These sources send signals to the brain, which then processes the information and creates an internal representation of our body state.
Unfortunately, interoception can be disrupted in individuals with disordered eating. Research has found that individuals with eating disorders, particularly anorexia nervosa, have difficulty accurately sensing their internal bodily sensations. This can lead to a disconnect between what their body is actually feeling and what they perceive it to be feeling. For example, they may feel full, but they may not accurately recognize the sensation of fullness, which can lead to eating less.. Low interoceptive awareness is also found in those with disordered eating, high ACE scores, and traumatized individuals.
One possible reason for this disruption in interoception is a dysfunction in the insula, a brain region that plays a key role in interoception. Studies have shown that the insula is smaller in individuals with anorexia nervosa and may not function properly in these individuals. Additionally, research has found that individuals with eating disorders often have a heightened sensitivity to external cues, such as the sight and smell of food, which can override internal signals and further disrupt interoception.
Luckily, mindfulness and self-compassion practices may help individuals with disordered eating improve their interoception. Mindfulness is the practice of being present in the moment and non-judgmentally paying attention to one’s thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. By doing so, individuals can become more attuned to their internal states, which can help them better understand their physiological needs. Other modalities that increase interoceptive awareness: are breath work, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, tai chi, biofeedback, and meditation.
One study found that individuals with anorexia nervosa who participated in a mindfulness-based intervention had improved interoception. The study used a measure of interoception known as the heartbeat detection task, which measures an individual’s ability to detect their heartbeat. The participants in the mindfulness group significantly improved their ability to detect their heartbeat compared to the control group.
Another study found that mindfulness-based interventions improved interoception in individuals with bulimia nervosa. The study used a measure of interoception known as the breath awareness task, which measures an individual’s ability to detect changes in their breathing. The participants in the mindfulness group significantly improved their ability to detect changes in their breathing compared to the control group. Why is this important? Interoception is needed to mindfully or intuitively eat. While interoception is necessary for intuitive eating, that approach is not a practice that meaningfully increases interoception.
This is very important because many attempting to practice intuitive eating are unable to successfully manage it because they are starting with a low interoceptive awareness that thwarts the ability to accurately interpret and manage hunger cues which are necessary to intuitively and mindfully eat.
Additionally, mindfulness practices may help individuals with disordered eating improve their emotional regulation. Mindfulness allows individuals to observe their thoughts and feelings non-judgmentally, which can decrease the likelihood of becoming overwhelmed by negative emotions. This can be especially beneficial for individuals with eating disorders, as they often have difficulty coping with negative emotions and may use disordered eating behaviors as a form of emotional regulation.
In summary, Interoception is the ability to sense and understand internal bodily sensations, which play a crucial role in emotional regulation and hunger sensations. However, for individuals with disordered eating, interoception is low. Studies have shown that individuals with eating disorders, particularly anorexia nervosa, have difficulty accurately sensing their internal bodily sensations. Mindfulness practices may help individuals with disordered eating improve their interoception by being more attuned to their internal states and improve their emotional regulation by observing thoughts and feelings non-judgmentally.