Up until about 15 years ago, the understanding of eating disorders was almost solely based on trying to understand the psychosocial history of the individual. However, over the past two decades, the advent of neuroimaging and the advancement in scientific research has lead to several observations about the biological aspects of eating disorders.
An eating disorder is first and foremost a medical and psychiatric condition. Over the past several years, scientists have studies neurobiology and well as the body’s physiological biology when an eating disorder is present. Compared to individuals who do not have an eating disorder, research as shown numerous differences in the brains of people who suffer with an eating disorder. Changes in blood flow patterns, neuro-hormone regulation, neuro-chemistry and brain cell loss all result in changes in brain functioning. As the brain changes, so does the individual’s emotional and behavioral patterns.
Patients often feel “to blame” for many of the eating disorder behaviors that are, in fact, driven by biological processes. To worsen the situation, perhaps well-meaning friends and family try to encourage the patient to “just try harder,” “just eat,” “just stop doing that,” or “have more willpower.” In turn, patient’s feel they are “weak”, “not strong enough,” or not capable of finding recovery leading to an even lower sense of self-esteem.
Eating disorder clinicians need to understand the biological facets so they can help educate patients and families. Clinicians further need to integrate this knowledge into treatment plans and during therapy sessions. A physician well-versed in eating disorder biology should also play an important role in the treatment team. All this being said, it is not always an easy task to find treatment providers with such knowledge, especially if they’re not specialist.
However, with an understanding of the biological aspects of an eating disorder, treatment can be more effective and certainly more safe. At times, medical interventions are possible for some of the complications caused by changes to the body and brain’s functioning. Currently, researchers are looking into more types of treatments that are biologically based to accelerate the process of recovery. And during this period, research has contributed to a more integrative bio-psycho-social approach to the understanding of eating disorders which has helped in the treatment planning process with clinicians who remain current with published literature.
A small sampling of the research published in some of the most respected medical/scientific journals has included:
Again, this is only a sampling of the research discovered about eating disorders. If you wish to better understand the biology of eating disorders you may read Understanding the Biology of Eating Disorders by Dr. Jeffrey DeSarbo’s as well as his book, Demystifying the Biology of Eating Disorders (Expected publishing date 2017).