Eating Disorders

Unlike traditional psychiatry, which rarely looks at the brain, Amen Clinics uses brain imaging technology to identify patterns associated with eating disorders and related conditions.

What are Eating Disorders?

Contrary to popular belief, eating disorders are not a lifestyle choice nor are they a sign of a personal weakness or character flaw. Eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, are potentially life-threatening mental health disorders that are rooted in brain dysfunction. When left untreated, these conditions can have devastating consequences on physical health and can further impair brain health. Research shows that eating disorders are associated with an elevated mortality risk and a higher risk of suicide. Because of this, it is critically important to seek help for eating disorders so you can lead a healthier life. (See more about the various types of eating disorders, their symptoms, and their consequences below.)

Who Suffers From Eating Disorders?

At least 30 million Americans struggle with an eating disorder. Eating disorders are more prevalent in women, and they often begin during adolescence or young adulthood. However, men can suffer from eating disorders too. In fact, it is estimated that 1 in 3 people with an eating disorder is male, but they are much less likely to seek treatment. In addition, athletes who compete in sports where there is an emphasis on body type, weight, or appearance are at risk for eating disorders.

Co-Occurring Conditions

It is very common for people with eating disorders to have co-existing mental health conditions. In fact, one study of over 2,400 people with an eating disorder found that 97% of them had at least one co-existing psychiatric problem. Mental health conditions commonly seen in people with eating disorders include:

What Causes Eating Disorders?

Research suggests that some people are more vulnerable to developing an eating disorder due to family history, exposure to trauma, harmful thinking patterns, and brain abnormalities. Having low self-esteem or being a perfectionist may also contribute to eating disorders. It is believed that extreme dieting or starvation changes the brain in ways that may make a person more prone to continue unhealthy eating patterns.

Mental health conditions commonly seen in people with eating disorders include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Substance Abuse
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • Suicidal Thoughts and Attempts

Why Choose Amen Clinics for Treating Eating Disorders?

The brain SPECT imaging performed at Amen Clinics can evaluate the health of your brain and detect abnormal brain patterns associated with eating disorders and related conditions. Brain scans are a very powerful tool in the treatment of eating disorders because they help patients see that the problem is biological, identify co-existing conditions, and decrease shame. When it comes to treatment for eating disorders, one size does not fit all! What works for one person may not work for another—or could even make your symptoms worse! Based on your complete assessment, we can create a personalized treatment plan for you. At Amen Clinics, we believe in using the least toxic, most effective therapies and strategies to optimize your brain function and help you regain control of your eating and your life.

Eating Disorder Brains Work Differently

Based on the world’s largest database of brain scans related to behavior—over 160,000 brain scans and growing—we have learned that certain brain regions are associated with eating disorders, including:

  • Anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG): This area is involved in allowing people to shift attention from subject to subject. When the ACG is overactive, people tend to get “stuck” on the same thought or behavior.
  • Basal ganglia: This region helps set the body’s anxiety level and is involved in forming habits. When there is too much activity in the basal ganglia, it is associated with increased anxiety and heightened fear.
  • Parietal lobes: Involved in sensory processing and direction sense, the parietal lobes help you know where things are in space, such as navigating your way to the kitchen at night. This region has been implicated in eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorders, such as with people with anorexia who think they are fat.

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Types Of Eating Disorders

Not all eating disorders are the same. Some people restrict their food intake so drastically they become bone thin, some can’t stop eating and become obese, some gorge on food then vomit to avoid weight gain, and some become hypervigilant about eating the “perfect” healthy diet. Find out more about the various types of eating disorders, the symptoms associated with them, and the potential consequences when they go untreated.

Type 1: Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder in which people have a distorted body image and view themselves as overweight or obese even though they may be significantly underweight. People with anorexia nervosa tend to have intense fear about gaining weight, and they severely limit the amount of food they eat.

  • Symptoms
  • Distorted body image
  • Severely restricted eating
  • Extremely underweight
  • Obsessive worry about weight gain

Consequences of Anorexia Nervosa

When people severely limit their intake of food, their brain and body don’t get an adequate supply of the nutrients necessary for healthy functioning. This can lead to a number of health consequences, including anemia, osteoporosis, constipation, low blood pressure, fatigue, menstrual irregularities, infertility, electrolyte imbalances, heart problems, and more. Issues resulting from self-starvation can be deadly, and anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any eating disorder, according to research in JAMA. This 2011 review also found that 1 in 5 people with anorexia who die take their own life.

Type 2: Bulimia Nervosa

People with bulimia nervosa routinely experience a loss of control while eating and consume excessively large amounts of food. These episodes are followed by one or more unhealthy behaviors to try to eliminate the extra calories. These actions may include purging, engaging in excessive exercise, taking weight-loss supplements, using laxatives, using diuretics, using enemas, or fasting. People with bulimia nervosa tend to be overly concerned about gaining weight regardless of their actual weight and body shape.

Symptoms

  • Intense fear of weight gain
  • Preoccupation with weight and body shape
  • Repeatedly eating large quantities of food in a single sitting
  • Feeling out of control while eating
  • Repeatedly forcing yourself to vomit after bingeing
  • Excessively exercising to burn calories after overeating
  • Using laxatives, diuretics, or enemas to eliminate calories
  • Fasting to make up for bingeing
  • Taking herbs or supplements to lose weight after overeating

Consequences of Bulimia Nervosa

The cycle of overeating followed by purging or other unhealthy behaviors can have a negative effect on the health of your body and brain. People with bulimia nervosa often experience problems with the gastrointestinal tract, such as acid reflux, tooth decay, chronic sore throat. Bulimia is also associated with electrolyte imbalances that can lead to serious consequences, including cardiac arrest.

Type 3: Binge-Eating Disorder

In the U.S., the most common eating disorder is binge eating. People who are binge eaters feel like they have no control over their eating and frequently consume large amounts of food. Although you may feel guilty or embarrassed about your eating habits, people with binge-eating disorder don’t try to compensate for the intake of excessive calories the way people with bulimia nervosa do. They don’t force themselves to vomit, over-exercise, or use laxatives. Because of their high calorie consumption, binge eaters are often obese or overweight, but not always.

Symptoms

  • Consuming large quantities of food in a single sitting
  • Feeling a loss of control while eating
  • Eating even when you aren’t physically hungry
  • Continuing to eat even though you feel full
  • Eating quickly while bingeing
  • Bingeing when you’re alone
  • Stashing food you can eat later in secret
  • Feeling guilty, embarrassed, or disgusted about after binge eating

Consequences of Binge Eating

People with binge-eating disorder may become obese, which is associated with a laundry list of physical and mental health risks. Obese people are at a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, as well as many psychiatric illnesses. Their eating habits may also negatively impact their life at work, at school, and in relationships.

Type 4: Orthorexia

In general, trying to eat a healthy diet is beneficial to your physical and mental health. However, some people can develop an unhealthy fixation on healthy eating, which is called orthorexia. People with orthorexia become obsessed with eating a nutritious diet and can have intense worries about eating the wrong thing. This can lead to feelings of anxiety, guilt, and shame.

Symptoms

  • Cutting out whole categories of foods (for example, no carbs, no dairy, no animal products)
  • Severely restricting foods to a small group of healthy items
  • Compulsively checking food labels
  • Obsessing about what to eat or order when going out to an event or restaurant
  • Experiencing distress when approved foods are unavailable

Consequences of Orthorexia

Although people with this condition tend to be hyper-aware of the nutritional content of the foods they eat, they may cut out so many categories of “bad” foods that they miss out on key nutrients. Or they may not consume an adequate number of calories.

Type 5: Other Eating Disorders

There are a number of additional eating disorders, including:

  • Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID): Limiting specific foods or amounts of food without worries about body shape or size
  • Other Specific Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED): An eating disorder that does not meet the criteria of bulimia or anorexia
  • Pica: Eating non-food substances, such as dirt, hair, or paper
  • Rumination disorder: Frequent regurgitation of food

 

“With A Better Brain Comes A Better Life”

– Daniel G. Amen, M.D.

 

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