Several years ago I participated in a research study that examined the neurological aspects of an eating disorder. The purpose of the study was to compare the differences between the brain of someone with an eating disorder, the brain of someone who has recovered from one, and a healthy brain who had not gone through an eating disorder. At the time mine mine was an eating disorder brain. In September of 2018 I was able to participate in a similar study as now someone who has recovered. These studies are helping show eating disorder brain vs. recovery brain.
It appears there are subtle but important differences in how the brain functions depending on the stage of the disease, or lack of disease.
This post was triggered based on the fact that this past week I was hit hard with an infection. I spent four days in bed with fevers, chills, nausea, lack of appetite, and foggy brain. Symptoms like that turn just about anyone away from eating. And for most people, reduced calorie intake during acute sickness is fine and doesn’t have long-term effects. But for individuals with an eating disorder, these symptoms can trigger eating disorder thoughts and behaviors.
Eating Disorder Brain
We can all agree that humans are instilled with survival instincts and mechanisms. This fact makes eating disorder brain perplexing. How can the brain let down those survival instincts and mechanisms when the eating disorder brain takes over?
There’s no short answer. But the good news is research is actively engaged in trying to answer this question. And so far the results are showing the brains of those with and recovered from eating disorders are different than those who have never struggled with a disorder. Researchers see a different reward response, a different way of responding to neurological feedback, and altered serotonin pathways.
This is progress as this helps us understand the disease better. Information like this helps explain why recovery is so challenging and why something like sickness can be a trigger.
Eating Disorder Brain vs. Recovery Brain
When I was going through eating disorder treatment, my psychologist would say, “Do you think that’s your eating disorder brain talking”? It was a tool to help me identify when the disease was taking over my thoughts. Identifying eating disorder brain thoughts took practice. But I was actively engaged in my recover and over time it got a easier. Which led to replacement thoughts and developing different neurological pathways in the brain, all encouraging different behaviors.
This past week, I could hear how my eating disorder brain would have used this sickness to its benefit.
|Eating Disorder Brain||
You are feeling nauseous because of the fever.
|A physical symptom to
justify not eating.
|I know consuming small, easy-to-digest foods can help with the nausea.|
|There’s the lack of appetite.||Perhaps you can lose a few pounds by the end of this sickness since you’re feeling nauseous and have no appetite.||
Your body isn’t well-attuned with many internal signals right now since it’s dedicating a lot of mental energy towards fighting off a virus. Small meals can help give you the energy you need when I need it most.
Weight loss, not now!
In November 2016, Gallup Poll reported that for the past ten years in the United States, on average, 60% of women and 46% of men say they are interested in losing weight. With half our population wanting to lose weight, taking advantage of acute sickness to do that seems to be culturally accepted. And it probably feels natural to boast about weight loss after a sickness. But acute sickness is not the time to lose weight, to hope for weight loss, or to encourage weight loss.
Understanding Eating Disorder Thoughts
If you’re someone who hasn’t experienced an eating disorder it can be challenging to understand how the eating disorder brain creates thought a to thought b. And if you’re someone who has suffered from an eating disorder, you know that these thoughts can be so automatic and habitual that you don’t realize you have them.
The goal of effective treatment is to make recovery and healthy behaviors habits of their own, so that returning to the eating disorder brain will be as incomprehensible as the recovery brain once was.
We still have a lot to learn about the neurobiology of eating disorders, like how those neurological risk factors might interact with cultural messages about weight and body image.
Do I have an eating disorder?
After engaging in behaviors and thoughts frequently, certain things may just seem like normal to you. And that’s part of the trickiness of eating disorders.
Here are several resources to start the self-assessment of identifying if you have an eating disorder:
- Eating Disorder Quiz supported by Casa Palmera
- Self-Assessment Quizzes by Recovery Center
- Screening Tool provided by NEDA
If you are concerned that you, a friend, or family member may have an eating disorder, please reach out for support and help. The eating disorder brain cannot recover without professional assistance, love, and support.