November 02, 2020

How Do Eating Disorders Affect the Brain?

People with eating disorders are at risk for serious health consequences, including brain damage. Disrupted eating behaviors negatively affect the amount of nutrient absorption, which means the brain doesn’t get the nutrients it needs to function properly. Eating disorders tend to affect the mind before the body.

What’s an Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is a psychological disorder that’s typically characterized by abnormal, disturbed, and harmful eating habits. The most common eating disorders are Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and binge eating, each with its own set of symptoms and risks. 

Impacts on the Brain

Negative impacts and changes to the brain resulting from eating disorders are based on the type of eating disorder an individual has.

Effects of Anorexia

People with anorexia are generally less motivated and less interested in eating food, as they’re less likely to enjoy the experience of eating. For those with anorexia, food causes anxiety and fear, not pleasure. Here are some of the known effects that anorexia has on the brain:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Disordered thought patterns and difficulty concentrating
  • Disruptions in neurotransmitter behavior
  • Structural changes to the brain
  • Overall shrinkage of the brain

Effects of Bulimia

For those with bulimia, research shows that stress and negative moods are often seen to trigger bulimia because they’re trying to escape negative feelings. They also have an exaggerated reward that drives their desire to eat more than normal. They have a heightened response to taste, even when they’ve eaten until they’re full. People with bulimia have significantly more interest in food and eating than those with anorexia. Here are some of the effects bulimia has on the brain:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Increased sensitivity to taste
  • Inability to make decisions or set priorities
  • Loss of white matter in the brain
  • Chemical imbalances in the brain (i.e. serotonin)

Binge Eating Disorder Effects

People with binge eating disorder often have an exaggerated wanting and drive to eat, but a minimized experience of enjoying it. Eating isn’t a pleasurable activity for those with binge eating disorder and they often feel the need to keep eating as a way of some degree of pleasure. Here are some of the effects that binge eating has on the brain:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Self-hatred and guilt
  • Increased need for pleasure 
  • Inability to resist impulsive decisions
  • Reduced heart rate, which can lead to a loss of oxygen in the brain

Reversing Damage

Fortunately, the neurological effects caused by eating disorders can be halted or reversed to an extent with proper treatment. Conditions like osteoporosis remain for life once they develop, but it’s possible to slow their progression. 

The treatment program for eating disorders focuses on restoring healthy eating habits to restore your body’s physical and mental health. The circulation of vitamins and minerals and getting the right amount of calories greatly helps the recovery process.

Helping a loved one with bulimia nervosa can be a challenge.

The caring providers at Baptist Health are on your side.

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Learn More About Eating Disorders and Treatment Options with Baptist Health

If you think you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of an eating disorder, contact your nearest Baptist Health location today to learn more about services and treatment options.

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