Eating disorders are diseases of the brain
Eating disorders have traditionally been regarded as socio-cultural disorders, with causes viewed as problems in early relationships, low self esteem, the rise of media pressure to be thin, photoshopped images, and fashion magazines.
However, research now verifies that eating disorders are not primarily caused by these factors (this is not to say that these issues do not have an important influence in the development of eating disorders), but that rather they are neurobiological disorders, which are influenced by developmental and genetic factors. Genetic researchers have discovered that the relatives of those suffering from eating disorders are 12 times more likely to have experienced or develop an eating disorder than the general population. Science researcher Carrie Arnold found that that:
leading researchers believe that up to 80% of your risk for developing anorexia is due to your genes and not what magazines you read or how much control you have.
These findings are evidenced by the fact anorexia sufferers share many of the same personality traits, including:
- over controlled
- likely to have anxiety
- more likely to suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder
- a high level of perfectionism
- prefer a familiar routine to spontaneity
Many of these personality traits existed before the eating disorder, become intensified during the eating disorder, and often persist, if untreated, after recovery. The way in which eating disorder patients present these resemblances shows that their brains are wired similarly, and suggests that having these personality traits can put people at risk for developing an eating disorder. This awareness can be a preventative measure for eating disorders as parents can learn to spot signs through overall behaviour and detect eating problems early on.
Eating Disorders are not a Choice
Through a biological explanation we can understand why some people go through the same stressors and pressures as others but do not go on to develop an eating disorder. A person who is genetically predisposed to develop an eating disorder may have their illness triggered off through a chain of events such as puberty, school pressure, relationship stress, media pressure, illness and dieting. This is why many people will give these reasons as the cause for their eating disorder, and of course these events are very significant, however they were genetically predisposed towards developing an eating disorder in the first place.
Eating disorders can be caused by a state of semi starvation
Dieting and/or illness are significant triggers for an eating disorder, because innocent weight loss can change the chemicals in the brain, and in individuals which are genetically predisposed to an eating disorder, this can have catastrophic effects;
Starvation and weight loss have powerful effects on the brain and other organ systems, causing neuro-chemical disturbances that could exaggerate pre-existing traits, adding symptoms that maintain or accelerate the disease process Walter H. Kaye MD Ursula F. Bailer MD Megan Klabunde MS Harriet Brown, 2010.
I will write more about dieting and its dangers soon as it’s so important for how recovery is approached.
Even in people who are not genetically predisposed to having an eating disorder, a state of semi starvation can produce eating disordered symptoms
This is seen in the Minnesota Starvation experiment in 1944-1945, when a group of men were starved voluntarily. The conclusion was that they became preoccupied with food, recipies and calories, and when they were able to eat again they had episodes of binging. None of these men had a history of previous eating difficulties; this just goes to show how catastrophic depriving your body of the calories it needs can be to your mind and body. Read more here
Continued malnutrition caused by restriction (with or without weight loss, as is evident in bulimia) keeps the eating disorder going.
Keep in mind restrictive eating disorders can occur at any weight, even when the sufferer does not look ill. Eating disorders are very serious illnesses needing early intervention for the best outcome. Understanding that eating disorders are not a choice, and gaining insight into the biological factors underlying eating disorders is essential in the fight against these horrific, difficult to treat illnesses.