Eating Disorders: “Complete Recovery is Possible”

We all have to eat. It’s one of those things like breathing or sleeping. We need it to survive. In fact eating gives us the fuel to draw a breath or crawl into bed. One could argue it is the most necessary necessity. Unfortunately there are some disorders that warp our relationship with food…often with grievous results. In this post we explore eating disorders.

There are various eating disorders and therefore numerous ways they take hold. One is a preoccupation with weight gain. Another is an obsession with cleanliness or food allergies. For some, food may be a source of emotional comfort. In all of these cases a person has troubling thought patterns related to eating.

One harmful myth about eating disorders is that they are chosen of someone’s own volition. The truth is they are mental diseases affecting a person’s behavior. Thoughts about food trigger rituals and aversions similar to those seen in anxiety/OCD sufferers. Due to comorbidity with eating disorders anxiety might even exacerbate the issue.

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by restricted food intake. In most cases this is because of an unhealthy obsession with weight and physical appearance although it can also stem from contamination concerns. Patients with anorexia are often picky about their meals, eating only low-calorie items or dishes made in a strict setting. They may become socially withdrawn especially when it comes to meal-centered gatherings. Patients with anorexia often grow emaciated, their hair and skin becoming brittle. Remaining undiluted, stomach acid erodes the stomach lining (gastritis). The worst cases can lead to organ damage.

Bulimia nervosa, like anorexia, often starts with a weight obsession. Bulimia sufferers compensate for meals by making themselves vomit, using laxatives, or exercising too much (yes there is such a thing). Most symptoms mirror anorexia due to similar problems like caloric restriction and malnutrition. A few are due to frequent regurgitation: tooth decay, esophageal irritation, swollen/sore throat, indigestion, and dehydration are all common.

Binge eating disorder (BED) is characterized by eating too much rather than too little. Sufferers lose control over how much they eat because food provides comfort or an escape from life problems. Obesity is a health concern with BED because it does not involve the purging aspect seen in bulimia. Symptoms can include rituals involved with eating, eating in private because of shame from overeating, eating too quickly, and eating past satiation. As with an empty stomach, one that is too full can also lead to problems like gastritis or acid reflux.

Once the warning signs are apparent (social isolation, food-related rituals, abnormal focus on appearance, etc.) it is essential to begin treatment quickly. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “complete recovery is possible.” As seen with others, eating disorders respond best to a mix of psychotherapy and medication.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is often used since disturbed thought patterns about food are the root of the problem. Family or group therapy is helpful so patients’ loved ones play a supporting role in treatment. Antidepressants are the most effective psychiatric medications in treating eating disorders. 

Assembling the proper team of doctors is also essential. Aside from mental health professionals, other doctors may be needed to asses physical damage to one’s organs and teeth. A nutritionist can help build a healthy diet.

Eating disorders lead to dire and sometimes fatal consequences. Their fatality rate exceeds all other psychological problems. Eating way too much, way too little, or routine vomiting/laxative abuse can lead to gastritis, acid reflux, ulcers, kidney problems, gallbladder disease, and various imbalances. To make matters worse, some with eating disorders commit suicide. So stay vigilant about warning signs in loved ones or in yourself: recurring absence at meal times, constant mirror checking, being excessively picky about food, rituals involving food…if you notice any of this please reach out for professional help immediately. If a sufferer refuses to seek help or seems to be in a volatile state of health, hospitalization may be necessary.

Note: For assistance with behavioral health issues, contact us at 305-740-3340 or schedule an appointment with BregmanMD.

For help finding treatment, try the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s website for hotline numbers and a locator for mental health professionals in your area.

References:

Mayo Clinic (2017, July). Eating Disorder Treatment: Know Your Options. Retrieved on April 4, 2019 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/eating-disorders/in-depth/eating-disorder-treatment/art-20046234

National Alliance on Mental Illness. Eating Disorders. Retrieved on April 2, 2019 from https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions/Eating-Disorders

National Institute of Mental Health (2018) Eating Disorders: About More Than Food. Retrieved on April 1, 2019 from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders/index.shtml