The Science behind Eating Disorders

The Science behind Eating DisordersEating disorders are compulsive eating habits that are damaging to a person’s health. Anorexia nervosa occurs when a person has an irrational fear of gaining weight causing them to eat very little. Bulimia nervosa is characterized by excessive eating or binge eating followed by purging (forced vomiting), the abuse of laxatives, or excessive exercise. Many people are unaware that these disorders are caused by genetic and biological causes in addition to pressure from society. A person may feel low self-esteem due to the presence of idealized body images in the media, but without other inherent causes he or she will rarely develop an eating disorder.

Neurological Chemicals Involved in Eating Disorders

A variety of brain chemicals influence and control behavior, and an imbalance in these chemicals can trigger an eating disorder. Some brain chemicals related to eating disorders and overall mental health include the following:

  • Serotonin – Serotonin affects impulse control, depression, anxiety and hunger. When Serotonin levels are too high, a lack of food can have a calming effect. When they are too low, a person may get a boost to his or her mood by overeating. These imbalances can occur due to genetic or environmental causes, or they may develop due to sporadic eating habits.
  • Dopamine – Dopamine influences a person’s mood by causing pleasurable feelings as a reward certain activities. The reward pathway encourages life-sustaining activities such as eating, sex, and sleep. When a person’s brain reacts to dopamine in an unnatural way, it may cause a person to feel anxiety instead of pleasure from eating, causing anorexia. A bulimic person may feel an excessive amount of dopamine when thinking about food, but they lack a sense of satiety and fulfillment from eating, causing them to eat more.

Genetic Causes of Eating Disorders

Many causes of eating disorders are genetic. Certain genes are shared in family members who have bulimia or anorexia nervosa. Co-occurring mental health issues such as OCD, depression or anxiety are also genetic and can influence the development of eating disorders. Treating these issues together leads to a much greater chance of recovery success, because these issues are closely related, and each reinforces the others.

Behavioral therapy can help a person retrain their brain’s response to healthy eating habits. Through therapy chemical processes become more stable. Family therapy can help loved ones communicate with each other in a positive manner, reducing stress in the home. Loved ones sharing meals can help someone suffering from anorexia associate more positive emotions with food.

Get Treatment for Eating Disorders

If you are suffering from compulsive eating habits, you may have an eating disorder. Our trained counselors can help you decide if you need treatment, assess any co-occurring problems such as mental health or substance abuse issues and find a treatment center that is right for you. Call our toll-free 24 hour helpline now to get the help you need.