Many of us eat to fuel rigorous activities, others love to cook, try new flavors or celebrate the social aspect of holidays or celebratory meals. But for those suffering from eating disorders, the relationship with food can be much more complex.
Eating disorders are a dangerous mental health disorder that, when left untreated, can result in lifelong health problems or even mortality. Much more than just being about food, eating disorders can destroy a person’s self image, mood, physical health, and strength. Although eating disorders don’t necessarily receive as much press as some other mental health conditions, one kind – anorexia nervosa – is responsible for more deaths than any other mental disorder, including schizophrenia and bipolar disease. It’s believed the reason for this is that anorexia nervosa actually destroys the body by starving it of food and nutrients, thereby manifesting in physical outcomes and not just mental health concerns.
Coping with an eating disorder on your own is a huge challenge, so first understanding the causes and types of eating disorders can help you or a loved one identify their condition and get the help needed for recovery.
Causes of Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are the result of a perfect storm of genetic, psychological, social, and emotional conditions that result in an obsession with food, weight and appearance. This obsession becomes all-encompassing, disrupting the patient’s health, personal and professional relationships, and mental well-being. For the more than 10 million men and women who suffer from an eating disorder, life is calculated by the calorie and carbohydrate, as well as constant visits to a constantly lowered registry on the bathroom scale. Risk factors include:
- Genetics, which play a factor in who may develop an eating disorder, with certain dispositions being inheritable at a rate of up to 12 times more if a family member also has had an eating disorder.
- Obsessive and compulsive behaviors. Certain personality traits, such as obsessive and compulsive behaviors, perfectionism and impulsivity are all common traits of those who suffer from eating disorders. Very simply put, it’s thought that those who crave order and control in their lives find satisfaction controlling their food intake and weight, however, it’s much more complex than that.
- Brain imaging has shown that those who suffer from eating disorders may have issues with altered brain circuitry, serotonin pathways, as well as anxiety and depression.
- Post-traumatic stress resulting from sexual, emotional, and/or physical trauma often manifest into eating disorders. Whether it is to “regain” control of one’s life or to deal with shame, guilt or body image, many who struggle with eating disorders do so as an expression of either self-harm or a cry for help.
Types of Eating Disorders
When people think of eating disorders, they usually think of anorexia nervosa (depriving one’s self of food or nutrients) or bulimia (binging and purging). But there are more that people struggle with every day. Including the two mentioned earlier, they are:
- Anorexia Nervosa. People with anorexia severely restrict their food intake and lose weight as a result. Their skewed self-image does not reveal to them how thin they are, even when others urge them to gain weight. Left untreated and devoid of nutrients and electrolytes, those with severe anorexia will eventually suffer irregular heart function, organ failure, and even death. There are two sub-types of anorexia nervosa. The first is restrictive type anorexia nervosa, in which people avoid all food and grow increasingly thin and frail as a result. Restrictive type anorexia nervosa disrupts all systems in the body. The other is binge-purge type anorexia nervosa, in which people cycle between food avoidance, and eating large amounts followed by purging (vomiting or using laxatives to empty the digestive tract). In addition to being malnourished, people who purge by vomiting or use of laxatives suffer erosion of the upper digestive tract, dental decay, among other serious problems.
- Bulimia Nervosa. While it sounds similar to binge-purge type anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa results in an unhealthy cycle of uncontrolled, excessive eating followed by induced vomiting, use of laxatives, and sometimes, extreme exercise leads to many digestive and metabolic problems. People who have bulimia nervosa may not look as skeletal as patients who suffer from severe anorexia nervosa, but they have major health problems caused by their eating disorder, including dental and gastrointestinal issues that result from excessive vomiting.
- Binge-Eating Disorders. People who suffer from binge-eating disorders have bouts of uncontrolled excess eating. They don’t purge after binging, however, so they are often overweight. Sometimes, eating is done in secret and seen as shameful. Binge eaters eat when they are not hungry until they feel uncomfortably full.
Coping with eating disorders
Contrary to what many people thought decades ago, eating disorders are not caused by personality flaws, weakness, or lifestyle choices. Those suffering from eating disorders have a mental health condition, which means that coping at it alone will be very difficult. A combination of psychotherapy, medications, medical care, and counseling usually is required for treatment to be successful.
If you have an eating disorder or if you know someone who does, seek out medical attention immediately. An experienced mental health professional can help evaluate you or a loved one, make a diagnosis, recommend treatment, and perform further testing.
Neuro Behavioral Center is a premier outpatient center focused on providing you with the highest quality of mental health services. Our highly qualified team of compassionate and caring professionals is dedicated to providing the most advanced and comprehensive treatment and adult psychiatric and psychology services, including for those who have eating disorders. We maintain a private and secure communication channel with our patients, while collaborating with other care providers to ensure your success. To schedule a psychiatric evaluation, please call our Walpole, Mass., office at (508) 660-1666 or request an appointment online.