August 7, 2023
The Effect of Eating Disorders on the Brain
Written by Guest Author
Feeding and eating disorders are a group of complex and severe mental illnesses that impact mental, physical, and social well-being.
Not only do these disorders lead to malnutrition, but if left untreated, they can also cause changes in the brain.
These shifts in neurobiology can impact thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, adding to the complexity of recovery.
In this post, we will explore this impact on the brain. Understanding the detrimental effects of feeding and eating disorders is the first step toward recovery for yourself or a loved one. Let’s dive in.
How the Brain is Affected
Changes in Neurotransmitters
Our brain produces chemicals that transmit signals between cells.
When these chemicals are disrupted, they impact mood, motivation, and anxiety, to name a few. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters.
Eating disorders can disturb the levels of certain neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.
Changes in Structure
Researchers have found that individuals with eating disorders have smaller brains than those without.
Areas of the brain structure that are most impacted are the areas that regulate emotion, reward, and regulation. These changes make it difficult for people to cope with various circumstances.
Changes in Function
It stands to reason that when structures and chemical balances are changed in the brain, so is how the brain works.
Shifts in brain function complicate life by:
- inhibiting decision-making capacities,
- planning abilities, and
- clear thoughts.
I’m sure you’re wondering how feeding and eating disorders cause these changes, and truthfully, researchers are still trying to get to the bottom of that. However, stress, psychological factors, and malnutrition play a significant role.
Your brain operates off nutrients like protein, carbohydrates, fats, and water. When those nutrients are depleted over a long period, it begins to damage the brain.
When the brain is provided adequate nutrition, it operates well. This phenomenon happens when people get “Hangry.” Hunger in the body signals an overresponse of emotion.
Over time, that response channel changes the way the brain communicates.
When someone stays at a nutrition deficiency, significant stress is placed on the body. Stress can also change brain chemistry by creating unhelpful neuropathways.
All in all, the added stress challenges recovery, making feeding and eating disorders a deadly condition.
Psychological and Social Factors
Patterns in your family system and inner world are often the root of eating disorder behaviors. Trauma, body-image issues, low self-esteem, and high-conflict families also contribute to brain changes.
Sometimes, deeply engrained patterns that keep families at homeostasis are damaging enough to elicit the need to deprive the body of nutrients.
Long-term Effects of an Eating Disorder
Recovery protocols for feeding and eating disorders are at an all-time best.
Still, more research is needed to uncover the long-term impacts of these disorders.
With that said, those who have fully recovered from their illness still show changes in the brain along with ongoing or chronic mental health conditions like anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression.
How Can Eating Disorders Be Treated?
Your treatment must be taken seriously. Eating disorder therapists often have additional qualifications above typical therapists.
Usually, care teams include dieticians or nutritionists, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and doctors. A care team may also include yoga practitioners and bodyworkers.
The key to a care team is communication and diversity of qualifications.
Eating disorders are a whole-body experience.
Look for professionals that clearly state their credentials in feeding and eating disorders.
Your health matters deeply, don’t be afraid to ask about qualifications and the process to obtain this additional education.
And, as always, if you or someone you know is active in a feeding or eating disorder, reach out ASAP. Treatment will save your life.