How Eating Disorders Change Your Brain
Ever since we were young, we have been bombarded with images, words, and other sorts of media that all send us the same subliminal message: thin is beautiful. If you are anything else, you are less so. While nowadays there are people trying to subvert this by promoting gorgeous plus size models and clothing and lingerie lines for all body types, the damage has been done. Eating disorders change your brain, and plenty of people are suffering the consequences. Statistics show that 50% of teenage girls and 30% of teenage boys use some sort of disordered eating and unhealthy weight maintenance behaviour such as skipping meals, vomiting, or taking laxatives. 25% of college women use binging and purging to try and control their weight. The process of changing the way society perceives different body types will be a slow, uphill battle. In the meantime, we must acknowledge not just the physical effects, but the detrimental ways eating disorders change your brain.
What are Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders are categorized as psychological disorders, encompassing conditions that deal with abnormal, disturbed, and detrimental eating habits. Some of the most common eating disorders are Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa- both with their own set of symptoms and risks.
Anorexia nervosa is typified by starvation and extreme weight loss to a potentially life threatening degree. If you suffer from anorexia, you generally have extreme body related self esteem issues, inadequate food intake that results in abnormally low body weight, and in some cases, binging and purging. Look out for dramatic weight loss, an undue preoccupation with weight, calories, and a refusal to eat entire categories of foods, denying hunger, and trying to avoid food related situations. Being anorexic can result in low blood pressure, a higher risk of heart failure, osteoporosis, muscle loss, fainting and fatigue, and even kidney failure. If you or a loved one is suffering from anorexia nervosa, seek help- it has the highest death rate of any mental illness.
Bulimia Nervosa is similar to anorexia in the sense that it can also be life threatening. However, it is mainly characterised by a cycle of binge eating and then self-inflicted vomiting to make up for the eating. Again, usually this is a matter of wanting to control what you eat because of body image related self-esteem issues. Like anorexia, bulimia can be extremely detrimental to the body- damaging your electrolyte and chemical balance, digestive, and other major systems. It can also lead to cardiovascular issues that result in heart failure, tooth decay, and persistent bowel issues. If you suffer from bulimia there is a lot of distress, shame, and guilt surrounding the behavior that is both a symptom and instigator of the eating disorder.
How Eating Disorders Change Your Brain: Neurological
While bodily consequences such as malnutrition and cardiovascular issues are fairly well known, we often times overlook the secondary neurological disorders that arise as a result of the eating disorder. Disordered eating can cause structural damage to your brain such as a reduction in white (connects neurons) and grey (implicated in language, memory, and and attention processes) matter. This decrease in brain volume could be linked to decision-making and cognitive deficits. Studies have shown that the longer you have the disorder, the less grey matter you have. However, there is hope. After several weeks of maintaining a healthy weight and nutrition, this process can begin to reverse itself.
Scientists have found other structural abnormalities in those with eating disorders, such as the orbitofrontal cortex (the part of the brain between the eyes) and the insula- a region deep within the brain. Combined, these areas of the brain control how much we eat, and how we feel about something that we taste. As a result, abnormalities in these regions could result in propagating disordered eating by affecting the way we make decisions and perceive what we eat.
Hormones and Neurotransmitters
We need hormones and neurotransmitters (what are the types of neurotransmitters?) for our brain to relay information not only to itself, but the rest of our body. Studies now show that restrictive and disordered eating can damage these signals. Dopamine is often called the reward or “feel good” substance that helps control our pleasure and reward system. This includes the feelings we experience when eating food. For those who are bulimic, the purging and binging cycle weakens the response of dopamine in the reward circuit. This means you experience less pleasure from eating, so you binge to feel more reward. For anorexia, the reward system becomes convoluted- releasing dopamine when starving instead of when eating.
The nerve related damage severe disordered eating causes can be vast. The combination of dehydration and long-term malnutrition to the brain could result in lesions that cause seizures. Numbness, lack of sensation, or strange nerve sensations in the hands and feet (also known as peripheral neuropathy) is also a possible neurological condition. Depression is also a huge risk with eating disorders. The imbalance of dopamine and other hormones, vitamin deficiency, electrolyte disproportion, and malnutrition all make people extremely susceptible to depression.
Eating disorders have very serious consequences whether it is a propensity for cardiovascular disease, seizures, or mental health issues. As a society, we can try to follow in the footsteps of companies such as Aerie who have begun to recognize the importance and value of body inclusivity and hope eventually it will trickle down to our children. 50% of teenage girls and 30% of teenage boys should not have to risk their lives to attain an impossible body standard. If a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, seek help and treatment, and they can start to heal.
If you have an eating disorder, or suspect a friend or loved one from suffering from an eating disorder, don’t wait to get help. There are many resources available online to help you get started and help you on your way. If you feel comfortable enough with your friend or loved one, talk to them about their eating habits. If not, reach out to someone who you think could help. You don’t have to go through this alone. Talk to a friend, but seek professional help. Reaching out is the first step!
Deepti is a writer that specialises in neuroscience and psychology. She is passionate about modern medicine and finding other therapeutic techniques, and how both of these effect the developing brain. Deepti is extremely interested in the future of mental health awareness and treatment, and is always open to advice.