Pinterest A Grateful Life Lived: NEDA Week Post #1: The Neurological Basis of Eating Disorders

Sunday, February 22, 2015

NEDA Week Post #1: The Neurological Basis of Eating Disorders

"Just try and eat more.  Get some meat on your bones."

Gee. How kind of you. What an insightful comment. Just do me a favor: After you fill my plate with chocolate cookies, why don't you go find someone suffering from depression and force their mouth into a smile.

Ok.  So that’s a pretty crude joke and I don’t intend to offend anyone.  My point is: All those things are ludicrous, and yet telling someone with anorexia to “just eat more” seems to be perfectly acceptable.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been given unsolicited advice on how to gain weight with shakes and cookies and granola.  I’m not bitter about all the tips because I know all these people genuinely wanted to help me, but the fact that this is an acceptable comment points to a fundamental misunderstanding about anorexia in particular.  That is why, in my first post for National Eating Disorders AwarenessWeek, I’m discussing the neurobiological nature of eating disorders (Note: I’m only lightly brushing the surface as entire books can be written on the subject). 

Has it ever been acceptable to tell someone with cancer to just do a round of chemo, get better and move on with life?  No.  It doesn’t work that way.  There are many stages, treatments and aftercare programs that go into such an illness; and eating disorders are not all that different in this respect.  Assuming that a quick weight gain or some junk food is going to cure an eating disorder, is just insane.  Why?  Because just like cancer or depression: It is a legitimate illness.  Sticking food in the mouth may start healing the body, but it’s the brain that has to start functioning again or else recovery never happens. 

Care to look at what I’m talking about?

As I’ve learned in treatment at The Center forBalanced Living, there’s a typical “relay” system that works in the brain when it comes to decision-making and food in particular.  In a healthy person, the insula leads the way by recognizing hunger and taste in food eaten.  The amygdala senses no fear from the bite of food. It passes the message along to the nucleus accumbens, which takes pleasure in the food.  The anterior cingulate cortex weighs the emotions and the dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex knows that the body needs more.  Pretty cool right?  Well it doesn’t work that way in the brain of someone with an eating disorder. (RELATED: Beauty and Eating Disorders)

While the brain functioning between the eating disorders varies, that of someone with an eating disorder works more like this:  The insula gets the message that food is eaten but it doesn’t register hunger (or do so regularly) and there is little taste of the food.  The amygdala senses great fear and the nucleus accumbens says: “Yuck!”  The orbitofrontal cortex tells the brain to hold back and the anterior cingulate cortex fires off the message to not eat any more.  Then the dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex registers the panic of what to do next.

Do you see the stark difference between the two?  For a healthy person, the amygdala fires when there is true danger.  For someone with an eating disorder, it is not only overfiring, but it’s sending the message to fear food.  The neurological problems can begin for a number of reasons, but it is believed that there is an isolated gene for anorexia and one for bulimia, giving certain individuals a predisposition to eating disorders.  Thus, the act of eating more food is not going to fix a problem in the brain of someone with anorexia.  The nourishment will go a long way, but recovery needs to be multi-dimensional, involving therapy and skill training along with nutrition counseling.  I, for one, could speak for hours on what my body needed and what all the healthiest foods were.  But my eating disorder just told me that I couldn’t have any of it.  Just like in the walk of faith: Head knowledge doesn’t get you very far if you don’t put it into practice.  And I was a sinking ship when it came to living healthy. (RELATED: What Can You Do About Eating Disorders?)

If you’ve stuck with me this long, I’d say that means you’re committed to fighting eating disorders in the world around you.  And from the bottom of my heart: I thank you for that.  I thank you for all the young boys and girls who need to know it’s not ok to starve their bodies.  But it is ok, it is essential, to ask for help.

If, as a result of all my writing, one new person is educated on the dangers of eating disorders, I consider it worth it.  If just one reader begins to grasp the healing power of God, I consider it worth it.  If just one of you is able to recognize an eating disorder as a result of my story, and can stop the ticking time bomb for someone else, I consider it worth it.    And if my blog never makes an impact in any external way, I will still rest assured that I have shined God’s light in the darkness of my life and in the process: I’ve found there is much freedom in being raw and transparent with who I am (2 Corinthians 4:6).  In the end: This blog isn’t for you and it isn’t for me even, it’s for God.  After all: If it weren’t for Him, my life would’ve ended in a hospital bed four years ago.

Thanks for reading today.  Stay tuned for tomorrow NEDA Week post.


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