How the Processing of Body Cues May Affect Female Sexual Dysfunction and Disordered Eating
Whether we realize it or not, we are constantly sensing and processing signals from our bodies. For example, we may be consciously or subconsciously aware of our heartbeat, breathing, hunger, thirst, temperature (i.e., feeling too hot or too cold), or our need to go to the bathroom. The process of perceiving these body cues to better understand the state of the body is known as interoception.
Sometimes, people experience interoceptive dysfunction. This means that there is a disconnect between the body’s signals and the brain’s interpretation of those signals. Ultimately, this can lead to a misrepresentation of the body’s internal state. Some medical conditions that interoceptive dysfunction may contribute to are anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Some experts also theorize that interoceptive dysfunction may play a role in disordered eating, and possibly in female sexual dysfunction as well. Certainly, disordered eating and female sexual dysfunction are complex medical conditions that can be caused by myriad factors including childhood trauma, body dysmorphia, physical issues or other medical conditions, mental health issues, and/or some combination of these factors. Still, some hypothesize that problems with interoception could be among the multiple contributing factors to both of these conditions.
Further research is necessary to support these theories, but the two main features of interoception that experts believe contribute to disordered eating are body trust and distracting.
A person with high body trust is able to accurately perceive and recognize the cues that their body is sending them such as “feeling full” or “feeling hungry.” Often, people with disordered eating have low body trust, which means that they do not trust that the cues their body is sending them are accurate. They may therefore take a different approach in dealing with the cues that they perceive they are being sent from their bodies.
Distracting, on the other hand, is the tendency to try to distract oneself from uncomfortable physical sensations. This pattern of interoceptive dysfunction is also quite common in people who experience disordered eating.
Regarding sexual dysfunction, interoceptive dysfunction may play a role as well. Impaired processing of one’s bodily sensations can prompt a bias towards noticing uncomfortable or mildly painful sensations above pleasurable sensations. Additionally, low body trust may cause individuals to not trust their bodily cues during sex, leading to less desirable outcomes.
To further explore the possible role of interoceptive dysfunction in relation to disordered eating and female sexual dysfunction, a team of researchers recruited 1,201 women from a midsize southeastern U.S. university and several Reddit communities related to women’s health, sex, and disordered eating to participate in a study.
The women in this study completed the Multidimensional Assessment of Interoceptive Awareness Version 2, which is a measure of interoception. They also filled out the Eating Disorder Examination Questionnaire, the Female Sexual Function Index, and a questionnaire on their demographic information, including height and weight.
Upon compiling and analyzing the results, the researchers found that lower general interoception and lower body trust were indeed associated with higher dietary restraint and worse sexual function. Additionally, higher body image concerns were associated with worse sexual functioning and higher dietary restraint. This indicates that problems with interoception and body image concerns may be common risk factors for disordered eating and female sexual dysfunction.
Importantly, this study represents very early research, so it is imperative that further studies are done to replicate the results and lend support to this finding.
However, since the results of this study suggest that interoceptive dysfunction may be an underlying risk factor for both female sexual dysfunction and disordered eating, therapy to improve a person’s interoception and body trust may be an effective way of tackling an underlying issue that may be contributing to both of these conditions.
For more information on this topic, please read these publications from The Journal of Sexual Medicine:
Poovey, K., de Jong, D., & Rancourt, D. (2023). Women’s disordered eating and sexual function: the role of interoception. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 20(6), 859-870. https://doi.org/10.1093/jsxmed/qdad038