Do eating disorders impact the brain?
Eating disorders affect the lives of so many… Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder, but to name a few of the eating disorders that exist and affect the lives of so many. In fact, it is estimated that roughly 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder. So, it is likely that most of us, if not all of us, know someone, whether it is a family member or a friend, who has struggled with how they feel about their body and about food, or perhaps you may be someone who has experienced this yourself. Introduction… I’m a Research Assistant within the Eating Disorders Research Group at King’s College London, and I am part of a research project that aims to improve help-seeking in young people who have recently developed an eating disorder. I wholeheartedly believe that research like this is so important because unfortunately, it can take a long time to seek help and eating disorders can really take a toll on both the brain and body. For me, a super fun part of my job is being involved in the creation of animations that will hopefully encourage more young people to seek help, recognise their symptoms earlier, and improve their awareness of what an eating disorder is. One of these animations is about eating disorders and the brain (currently being developed). So, it’s safe to say, that I’ve got my fair share of learning about this. And, let me tell you, it’s pretty interesting stuff that I’m excited to share with you. Let’s get into it. The brain is incredible…
I might be biased as a Psychology graduate when I say this, but the brain is easily the most important organ in our body (and yes, it is an organ). It does so many incredible things for us. It controls our emotions, our memory, our vision, our breathing… the list goes on. Our brains work 24/7 365 days a year, so it needs to be properly fuelled. A car needs petrol… I need several cups of tea a day… and our brains need food.
Research suggests that eating disorders impact the brain…
In the world of psychological research, there is interesting and promising research that is being conducted on eating disorders. More specifically, research that uses brain imaging techniques, such as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), compares the brains of people who have eating disorders and those who do not. Some of the findings from this research suggest that eating disorders can impact the brain and the longer an eating disorder is left untreated, the more of an impact it can have.
Eating disorder symptoms, including poorer nutrition and abnormal eating patterns don’t do the brain a world of good. As it stands, fMRI studies suggest that brain activity is altered in various brain regions in those with anorexia nervosa (a complex eating disorder predominantly characterised as restricting food intake). For example, one study found that there was an association between severe and enduring anorexia and smaller brain volume and decreased grey matter volume, which is a relatively consistent finding.
Our grey matter makes up the outer layer of our brains and plays an important role in our day-to-day functioning, such as allowing us to control our bodily movement. Some studies suggest that reduced grey matter volume in the frontal brain regions can be related to difficulties in changing the focus of attention (i.e., constant thoughts about eating patterns which are common in eating disorders), among other cognitive difficulties in those with anorexia.
Whilst there is research in this area that is relevant to anorexia nervosa, unfortunately, the research is limited for bulimia nervosa and for other types of eating disorders, such as ARFID (avoidant-restricted food-intake disorder) and binge-eating disorder. However, the existing research has suggested that with the increasing severity of symptoms of bulimia and binge-eating disorder, comes greater neural changes in the brain, which suggests that other eating disorders besides anorexia nervosa, can also impact the brain.
These brain changes are not irreversible…
So, do eating disorders impact the brain? According to research, they can.
But that’s not all.
Another arguably consistent research finding is that improvement in brain functioning comes with eating disorder recovery. One study looked at adolescent girls with anorexia and found that an increase in BMI (body mass index) and symptom improvement was associated with increased grey matter volume in various areas of the brain. So, even though eating disorders can impact the brain, these changes have been found to essentially be reversible when eating disorder symptoms improve in recovery. Although, I’d like to add that more research needs to be carried out in this area so that we are able to understand this all a bit better.
When we consider all of the really interesting research that is out there about the brain and eating disorders, it’s imperative for us to understand that eating disorders need to be treated with urgency and the symptoms need to be recognised at an earlier stage. Eating disorders can be chronic and devastating illnesses and, as I said at the start of this blog post, can really take a toll on the brain and body.
Help is available…
What I’d like for you to take away from this blog post is newfound knowledge of the impact of eating disorders and the importance of seeking help if you are reading this and feel that you are struggling. These findings that I’ve briefly gone over can be incredibly scary to think about when our brains do so much for us.
Please take it from me, you are worthy of more than you know and there is never any shame in asking for help.
Support for eating disorders…
UK’s Eating Disorder Charity (BEAT)
FREED: First Episode Rapid Early Intervention for Eating Disorders