Disordered Eating: The Brain vs. The Power of Will

I’ve always thought that eating disordered behavior functions much like an addiction given that your brain activity and patterns can directly correlate to the type of disordered eating behaviors you exhibit and how you recover. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, “Researchers have identified specific neurobiological differences in the brains of people with anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder.” This specifically involves two main neurotransmitters in our brain that affects our sleep, mood, and appetite. These neurotransmitters are serotonin and dopamine. You have probably heard of them before. For example, you have probably heard people justify their chocolate consumption given the proven spike of serotonin it gives.

Researchers found that people who are currently suffering from anorexia have significantly lower levels of serotonin metabolites in their cerebrospinal fluid than individuals without an eating disorder.
When going without food for longer periods of time (such as during sleep), those with bulimia had a larger drop in serotonin levels than women without eating disorders, which led to binge eating and increased irritability (Steiger et al., 2001).

Dopamine is commonly thought of as the “pleasure” chemical, due to its links with rewarding behaviors and drugs of abuse. [Dopamine] also helps regulate movement, memory, hormones and pregnancy, and sensory processing (Beaulieu & Gainetdinov, 2011).

So it’s no wonder that much like substance abuse, individuals with eating disorders develop behavioral cycles that seem almost impenetrable given that our brains are literally signalling us to feed into this cycle. For example, you sleep, your serotonin levels are low, so you binge eat to compensate. Then, you feel guilty and are worried about weight gain, so you impulsively purge or exercise to compensate for the extra calories. And bulimia sufferers are naturally low in serotonin anyway, so the cycle begins again. An anorexic that breaks their fast will have a spike in serotonin, which causes them anxiety, which will also lead them back into a cycle of not eating. What’s worse is that the strong feelings of guilt and shame associated with these behaviors often prompt the person to perform these cycles in secrecy, which is an impediment to recovery.

In my experience, I’ve found that being open about these issues has eliminated those feelings of guilt and shame because it didn’t allow me to feel alone therefore I didn’t want to act alone. Connecting with others directly through therapy, support groups, or even via online forums were incredibly helpful. Growing up, eating disorders were still fairly taboo. Think about how many celebrities have come out in the last few years sharing their experiences with eating disorders. There are a lot. This is because more studies have shown that disordered eating behaviors are actually quite common. It also may be due to a rise of social media, which propagates a certain and often unttainable way we should look . Exercising choice in who to “follow” is key. Fortunately, there has been a rise of “influencers” that celebrate body positivity reject the very limited “ideal” of beauty.

Unlike substance addictions, we can’t simply stop eating. So while it will likely be incredibly uncomfortable, it’s necessary to break the cycle in order to create healthier habits and a plan of action. As with any habit changing, the will to change has to be there and that can only come from within. You have to want to get better. A change in perspective is also important. I’m pretty sure no one wants to have to worry about every morsel, calorie, and work out. That just got so tiring and tedious. Make a list of what you have to be thankful for might help put things in perspective. That often helped me.

So did nurturing anything that brought me joy because those things or activities gave me a respite from the constant anxiety and compulsions. Even for a minute. That’s a win, small as it is. Eventually, the compilation of wins will lead to recovery. So will the realization that no one is as worried about how you look more than you are. And that people that matter will love you regardless. These are liberating concepts. Relinquishing the need for total control and to maintain the illusion of perfection, for me, was the ultimate goal. And that was learned through desire to learn it, resilience, and millions of choices to take steps forward, even with some steps backwards.

Life is too short and at some point, with hard work and life experience, you realize that nothing matters more than relationships, how you make people feel and vice versa. That’s the truth. There’s no need to put yourself down or make the experience harder for yourself. I say this as a person that had dismal hope for a long time that I would overcome. But I did. The power of will is real, and it’s even more potent with the power of support!


SOURCES:

Eating Disorder Statistics. (2016, December 20). Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/toolkit/parent-toolkit/statistics

Neurotransmitters. (2016, December 21). Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/toolkit/parent-toolkit/neurotransmitters

Roizman, T. (2018, November 27). Chocolate & Dopamine. Retrieved from https://healthyeating.sfgate.com/chocolate-dopamine-3660.html


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2 thoughts on “Disordered Eating: The Brain vs. The Power of Will”

  1. Hi, Megan❣️

    I shared your ‘post’ w/ Kathy Herman, Francesca’s Mom ( I hope you don’t mind.) Francesca is coming out of her shell, is becoming much more social, has been accepted to Tulane & is embracing herself (not holding herself to a standard she can’t achieve.)

    I’m so proud of you for sharing your intimate story which I’m certain can help others.

    You’re my dream-come-true Niece & I love you 💕

    Alice

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Liked by 1 person

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