Can the Brain Fuel an Eating Disorder?

For individuals suffering from anorexia and bulimia, the brain plays a fundamental role in their response to food. Although environmental risk factors such as social media, peers, and familial expectations contribute to feelings of anxiousness about weight and self-image, there is increasing evidence that the brain also plays a major role in the development of an eating disorder.

As research unfolds, it is important to understand that the environment alone, does not cause an eating disorder. The following cutting edge information concerning neurobiological factors must be taken into consideration when treating individuals with eating disorders. When psychotherapy techniques combine knowledge of neurobiological and environmental risk factors that fuel eating disorders, individuals will be better equipped to defeat the critical voices inside of their heads.

How the Brain Fuels Anorexia Nervosa

What is anorexia? Anorexia is an eating disorder that is characterized by individuals who eat very small portions of food or no food at all. This leads to abnormally low body weight that can have detrimental health effects on the individuals. Individuals suffering from anorexia are not eating the appropriate amount of calories and nutrients needed for the body to be healthy. Often times, they see themselves as being overweight and this feeling ultimately leads to an abnormal amount of fear and worry every time the person eats food.[1]

For most people, food is a pleasurable experience that satisfies hunger and becomes a part of our social world. For individuals diagnosed with anorexia, the brain responds in a different way to food. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine conducted a study in which they wanted to understand how individuals diagnosed with anorexia are able to ignore the physiological feeling of hunger. For individuals recovering from anorexia, the brain showed “a decreased response to reward, even when hungry. This is opposite of healthy women without an eating disorder, who showed greater sensitivity to rewards when hungry.” The study also concluded that after examining brain scans, individuals with anorexia exhibit a higher sense of self-control than people without an eating disorder.[2] This research has shown that individuals with anorexia display a strong neurobiological difference in their ability to refuse food and potentially starve themselves in comparison to people without an eating disorder.

For most people, the hypothalamus is the part of the brain that stimulates feelings of hunger so the body can maintain homeostasis, or balance in the body. However, when examining the brains of people with eating disorders, it has become evident that the Hypothalamus, Pituitary Gland, and Amygdala, also referred to as the HPA Axis, release vital neurotransmitters, or chemical messages, that regulate mood and appetite. Researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Center sought to understand the abnormal levels of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, that are present in individuals with eating disorders.

“Serotonin is involved with well-being, anxiety, and appetite (among other traits), and norepinephrine is a stress hormone. Dopamine is involved in reward-seeking behavior. Imbalances with serotonin and dopamine may explain in part why people with anorexia do not experience a sense of pleasure from food and other typical comforts.”[3] This cutting edge information makes it evident that anorexia is rooted in abnormalities in a person’s brain makeup  and if individuals do not seek treatment, can cause extreme damage to a person’s health livelihood.

How the Brain Fuels Bulimia Nervosa

What is bulimia nervosa? Bulimia nervosa is often diagnosed for individuals who experience episodes of eating and then purge, or vomit, the food afterwards. Individuals may also use laxatives or may excessively exercise in a very unhealthy manner. Trying to reverse the caloric intake may be caused by feelings of guilt for eating too much food or a large amount of unhealthy food. In most cases, individuals are typically worried about their weight and self-image and may ultimately struggle with losing weight.[4] The struggle with losing weight and meeting societal and peer expectations can become an overwhelming burden and can lead to destructive behaviors.

For individuals suffering from bulimia nervosa, research has shown that they have a “weaker-than-normal response in brain regions that are part of the dopamine-related reward circuitry.”[5] The decreased feeling of food being a pleasure seeking tool to nourish the body may be responsible for why individuals have increased anxiety over the food they eat and may explain why they purge or use laxatives. In addition to not seeing food as a pleasure seeking reward, abnormal levels of serotonin in individuals diagnosed with bulimia may be responsible for these heightened levels of anxiety and ultimately, the impulsive actions of purging or using laxatives to reverse caloric intake.[6]

When it becomes evident that food is no longer a reward to nourish the body and satisfy hunger, treatment for eating disorders must concentrate on treating both neurobiological and environmental risk factors that fuel anorexia and bulimia. By taking immediate action and asking for help, you or someone you love can finally get the proper treatment.

Seeking Treatment that Emphasizes Whole Person Care

It has become increasingly evident that individuals with anorexia and bulimia suffer from a wide range of biological risk factors that fuel their eating disorder. Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists is a team of highly trained professionals that understand the neurobiological and environmental risk factors that cause eating disorders. With knowledge in cutting edge psychotherapy techniques such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), individuals will learn how to use effective coping mechanisms and self-soothing techniques to fuel their brain, body, and spirit in a healthy way.

Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists can help you improve your quality of life by reconstructing a new self-identity despite the neurobiological factors that contribute to your disorder. With the use of psychotherapy techniques that emphasize whole person care, you will learn how to be resilient against your disorder so that you will think and behave in a way that cultivates mindfulness and self-compassion.

Greta Gleissner is the Founder of Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists, a nationwide network of eating disorder treatment specialists that provide meal coaching and recovery skills such as CBT, DBT, ACT, MI, etc. EDRS works alongside treatment programs, teams and families to provide transitional aftercare support for post-residential treatment clients.

[1] https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders-new-trifold/index.shtml

[2]https://health.ucsd.edu/news/releases/Pages/2015-03-23-anorexia-nervosa-and-brain-response-to-hunger.aspx

[3] http://umm.edu/health/medical/reports/articles/eating-disorders

[4] https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders-new-trifold/index.shtml

[5] http://www.apa.org/monitor/2016/04/eating-disorders.aspx

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12769813