Eating disorders have become rampant across the globe, especially among Westernized populations whose cultures prize thin, models in the saturated advertising world.
But eating disorders may not just be created from a specific set of societal pressures artificially imposed on a person from the outside. There is growing evidence that eating disorders are linked to psychological disturbances such as bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and other neurological issues. What, in fact, manifests itself as a malignant cultural phenomenon is actually linked to deeper nutritional issues that feed forward on themselves to create a continual process of self-annihilation. While, in North American society, this may manifest itself as self-starvation or self-inflicted vomiting, in other places of the world, similar underlying causes can bring about other psychological or physical issues irrelevant of food. Perhaps, as a culture, with all of our artificial edifices and altars made in worship of impossible body images, our sicknesses take on a uniquely North American color. But at the root of it all, there are key physiological factors that need to be addressed to understand why this manifestation occurs.
In this article, we will look at the various types of eating disorders and how to recognize symptoms of these in yourself and others. We will also address underlying nutritional issues that exacerbate compulsive psychologies, and how all of this is cumulative for someone suffering from an eating disorder. What effect starvation, binging, and purging have on the body will also be addressed, and of course, what supplements and lifestyle changes can be made to ease the transition back into a healthy relationship with food and the self, post-medical-intervention.
What is an Eating Disorder?
Eating disorders refer to a group of behaviours that are characterized by abnormal eating habits and may or may not result in the intake of excessive or insufficient food. This can be detrimental to the person's physical and mental health and often borders on being a full-blown addiction. Though the demographic that eating disorder most often affect are females, males can suffer from them as well. Though the occurrence of eating disorders continues to grow all over the world, the highest risk group for developing them are Western women. It is estimated that almost half of all Americans know someone with a full-blown eating disorder.
Though the precise causes of eating disorders are obtuse and relatively unknown, there are many factors involved in the development of an eating disorder that can contribute to its occurrence. Firstly, it is thought that other medical condition are linked to eating disorders, particularly ADHD.Other conditions include PTSD, sexual trauma, being a foster child and potentially genetics.
Types of Eating Disorders
The big three are as follows:
• Anorexia Nervosa: characterized by refusal to maintain a healthy body weight, an obsessive fear of gaining weight, and an unrealistic perception of current body weight. However, some patients can suffer from Anorexia nervosa unconsciously. These patients are classified under "atypical eating disorders". Anorexia can cause menstruation to stop, and often leads to bone loss, loss of skin integrity, etc. It greatly stresses the heart, increasing the risk of heart attacks and related heart problems. The risk of death is greatly increased in individuals with this disease.
• Bulimia: characterized by recurrent binge eating followed by compensatory behaviors such as purging (self-induced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives/diuretics, or excessive exercise). Fasting and over exercise may also used as a method of purging following a binge.
• Binging: or 'compulsive overeating', characterized by binge eating, without compensatory behavior. This type of eating disorder is even more common than Bulimia or anorexia. This disorder does not have a category of people in which it can develop. In fact, this disorder can develop in a range of ages and is unbiased to classes.
Signs and Symptoms
- Significant loss or gaining of weight in short period of time
- Diet obsessions
- Obsessive calorie counting
- Thin or eroded teeth (from stomach acid due to self-induced vomiting)
- Gaunt features
- Fragile bones, easy breaks
- Inability to see how they really look
- Racing to the washroom after eating
- Wearing big or baggy clothes to hide weight loss or body
- Use of excessive laxatives
- Excessive exercise
- Visible food restriction or starvation
- Hiding food in strange places
- Visiting pro-ana websites
- Reading books about weight loss and eating disorders
- Loss of menstrual cycle
- Extremely low blood pressure
- Loss of sexual desire or extreme promisciuty
- Mood swings, depression, insomnia
- Self-defeating statements after food consumption
- Holding the belief that life will get better if they just lose weight
Genetic: There is a possible connection between genetics and a predisposition to developing an eating disorders. Studies have shown that it is not necessarily certain that someone will develop an eating disorder if they exhibit the Mendelian inheritance, however studies show that it is significantly more likely.
Biochemical: Eating is controlled by a complex process involving the hypothalaus-pituitary-adrenal axis, specifically the production of neurotransmitters, hormones, neuropeptides and amino acids that control appetite, mood, depression and control issues.
Leptin and Ghrelin: Leptin is a hormone produced mainly by fat cells in the body and has an inhibitory effect on appetite, including induction of the feeling of saiety. Ghrelin induces the appetite and is produced in the stomach and the upper part of the small intestine. Adequate and appropriate levels of both hormones are needed in the maintenance of weight and fluctuating levels of either have been implicated in the pathology of anorexia and bulimia nervosa.
Autoimmunity: There are several studies that show that a majority of anorexia patients actually exhibit signs of autoimmunity, in which their own immune cells attack hormones and neuropeptides that regulate appetite. There is increasing evidence that autoantibody levels are directly associated with specific psychological traits.
Brain Lesions: In trauma patients, it has been shown that lesions on the frontal or temporal lobe of the brain can induce pathologicak symptoms exactly correlating with an eating disorder irrelevant of genetics or environment.
Psychological: There is some evidence that eating disorders may have a causative relationship with personality disorders, though that official link is unknown as of yet. Studies have shown that people with a previous history of personality disorders have a greater vulnerability to develop an eating disorder.
Child Abuse - Again and again, child abuse has been show to precipitate a number of psychological issues including eating disorders. This includes physical, psychological and sexual abuse, as well as neglect. In a study done in New Zealand 25% of the study subjects in foster care exhibited an eating disorder.
Social Isolation - Isolation in the social realm can have detrimental effects on nearly all areas of a person's psychology and includes a major associated risk of stress, depression, anxiety and increased mortality. Sometimes individuals compensate these feelings with abnormal eating patterns. In a study out of 2007, researchers Waller et al. argued that both bingeing–vomiting and restriction are emotion suppression strategies, but they are just utilized at different times. For example, restriction is used to pre-empt any emotion activation, while bingeing– vomiting is used after an emotion has been activated.
Peer and Cultural Pressure - Parental patterns of eating and levels of love can directly affect a child's eating patterns and the possible development of an eating disorder later in life because of the close proximal relationship. In fact, often the influence of the parent is forgotten as entrenched patterns of food consumption or otherwise become part of the hardware of a child later in life. In numerous studies, peer pressure has been shown time and time again to be a significant contributing factor to body image issues and attitudes regarding the consumption of food among teens and those in their early twenties. According to one study, 40 percent of 9 and 10 year old girls in North America are trying to lose weight already. Many people often blame the western culture on increasing pressure to achieve unrealistic levels of thinness among young girls, and the influence of the media in particular. This may be correlative but it is not necessarily causative as time has shown that eating disorders are developing in other areas of the world free from such cultural pressures.
How to Get/Give Help (Intervention)
When it comes to staging an eating disorder intervention, there are a few steps that it is best to take in order go about things in the best possible way. According to the Centre for Hope, this is as follows:
- Start a conversation: First, try communicating your concerns to your loved one in a nonjudgmental and non-accusatory way, explaining specific instances when you felt concerned about their behaviors and that you feel treatment may help. This conversation may be informal or may be planned in advance with or without the help of a professional, as is the case with an eating disorder intervention. An eating disorder intervention is an event where close friends and family members gather to speak with the individual suffering from an eating disorder and describe the consequences of his or her disease. In most cases, the purpose of the intervention is to ask the individual to enter eating disorder treatment.
- Prepare for denial: If the person denies that a problem exists, share your feelings and practice active listening. Provide some literature or Internet resources that describe the symptoms of eating disorders and the treatment options. Remember, you’re speaking with someone who is suffering from a life-threatening mental illness. There are no simple solutions and there is no place for blame or guilt
- Don't Give Up: Even if you face resistance, approach your friend or loved one with love and compassion and continue providing support as long as he or she needs it. Don’t make unrealistic demands, criticize, lecture or get angry. Eating disorders are powerful defense mechanisms people use in the face of painful emotions. This means it can take time before the person is willing to admit they have an eating disorder, and even longer until they’re willing to do something about it.
- Get Help: Staging an intervention and offering support and information about eating disorder treatment options may be the most important things you can do for someone with an eating disorder. Eating disorders inflict significant damage on the body – damage that gets worse over time and that can be difficult to reverse. The sooner your loved one speaks with a doctor or enters an eating disorder treatment program, the sooner they can take back their health and their life. Eating disorder treatment programs will assess the individual’s symptoms and medical condition, and create an individualized treatment plan tailored to their particular needs. If any co-occurring mental illnesses exist, such as depression or anxiety, the treatment team can address those issues as well. While you can’t force someone to stop their disordered thoughts and behaviors, you are not powerless in the face of an eating disorder. By offering your support and encouraging your loved one to enter treatment, your voice can help save a life.
How to Help Yourself (Recovery)
- Eat: This might seem kind of obvious, but the first step after your treatment stage is to start eating again, and to continue to build a healthy relationship with food again based on the principles you learn in a rehabilitation program. Eating healthy fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, complex carbohydrates and fiber will insure that you are getting adequate nutrition to help stabilize blood sugar levels, mood and reduce the occurrence of relapse dietarily.
- Supplements: You may find that some supplements help you to stabilize your mood properly and reduce the incidence of relapse. These include cinnamon, fiber supplements, a multivitamin/mineral supplement (to insure nutritional requirements are being met and so rebuilding can take place), calcium-magnesium (to replace bone loss or damage that occurred during the eating disorder), 5-HTP for its mood-enhancing effects, as well as Vitamin D3, probiotics and digestive enzymes.
- Therapy: Talking to someone regularly after your rehabilitation program will help keep you on the right track and will hold you accountable to your goals. Make sure you find a psychologist, psychiatrist or counselor who is qualified and experienced with people who have eating disorders and try to meet with them regularly. Learning how to unravel past patterns can sometimes be the key to unlocking the potential of your future.
- Meditation and Prayer: Self-reflection and analyzation through a regular spiritual practice have been shown time and time again to assist those with eating disorders and other addiction-related behaviours. Find a structured religious practice that is right for you and seek guidance to help you through the rough times.
Disclaimer: The above information is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your physician.