What are eating disorders?
The term eating disorders covers a number of specific conditions which all impact on a person's ability to eat normally. This can be due to an issue with their physical health which impairs normal eating, but it is more common for it to be associated with mental health conditions nowadays. Individuals with anorexia nervosa, a mental condition, will frequently view themselves as unhealthily overweight and consequently restrict their diet abnormally, for example. It can lead to them becoming underweight, sometimes dangerously so. Eating disorders are known to affect women more than men in the West, although both suffer from them. In numerous cases, these disorders are combined with other issues, such as substance abuse, anxiety and depression and even abusive relationships.
Which eating disorders are the most common?
Although cases of pica, a psychological disorder which leads people to eat non-food items, occur in the West, more common eating disorders include bulimia and binge eating disorder, or BED. Both of these conditions result in a loss of control over eating normally and are considered psychological in their nature. Anorexia nervosa is more common than a similar disorder known as anorexia mirabilis, a condition that is known to be connected to fasting. The other of the most common eating disorders are OSFED which stands for other specified feeding or eating disorder. This is also a severe condition but one that does not specifically match the symptoms of some of the other common disorders.
How do eating disorders affect the brain?
Since eating disorders are mostly psychological, they have an impact on the brain and the way people think about themselves, those around them and, specifically, food and body image. Like any other repeated thought pattern, neurological alterations in the brain can occur if eating disorders are left untreated, which, unfortunately, often make them worse. Certain therapies try to undo this altered neurobiology of the brain to help people recover.
Can eating disorders be genetic?
Environmental influences, food allergies, personality traits and individual psychology all play their part in eating disorders. So do genetics. A number of large-scale scientific research programmes have been published which indicate that epigenetic mechanisms are sometimes at play with the development of an eating disorder. Twin studies into bulimia and anorexia nervosa have demonstrated this genetic link, for instance. That said, the other contributing factors also have an impact to a lesser or greater degree.
How are eating disorders treated?
The first place to turn if you think you may have an eating disorder, either because you cannot control your normal food intake or because you are seeing unprecedented weight gain or loss, is to talk to your general practitioner. Some self-guided programmes are shown to treat eating disorders effectively. Referrals are often made in more serious cases, usually to psychologists or psychotherapists. Treatments are then commonly tailored to the individual needs of the patient concerned.