What’s Different About The Brain On Anorexia

It is hard for someone without an eating disorder to understand why someone suffering from anorexia nervosa would go without food. Most people find it difficult to control their appetite. To an outsider, it appears to take an incredible amount of willpower to abstain from food to the point at which it would be a health risk.

People with anorexia are not actually exerting their will to abstain from food. In fact, it takes a tremendous amount of will for them to eat.

It's not a choice; with anorexia, your brain is wired differently.

A "Normal" Brain's Response to Food

Typically, the average brain will respond very favorably to food. Just showing a person pictures of food will get a positive response in brain activity, which is why so many food companies use alluring images in their advertisements.

When most people begin eating, the brain becomes very active in parts where we experience rewards and pleasure. After a meal, the brain releases a healthy dose of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that brings a sense of calm.

This brain activity is why, for most people, eating is very enjoyable.

The Anorexic Brain's Response to Food

The brain of a person with anorexia doesn't show much response—if any—when food is a stimulus. Pictures of what might cause most people to drool don't do much for the anorexic brain.

Activity occurs in different regions of the brain for people with anorexia than it does for people without an eating disorder. There is much less activity in the brain's pleasure centers. Instead, parts of the brain that get stimulated are related to habit-forming. These pathways are flooded with serotonin, teaching the body that eating is not a calming or pleasurable experience.

A person with anorexia begins to associate food with fear, stress, and anxiety. Food is not a reward, it's more of a punishment, so they avoid it.

Which Comes First?

There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg dilemma when it comes to this unusual brain activity in people with anorexia. Scientists aren't sure if different brain activity causes starvation, or if starvation causes different brain activity.

It could be a vicious cycle; differences in the brain may make one more susceptible to anorexia, then starvation makes those neural differences more pronounced. Some studies have linked malnutrition to brain damage. Prolonged malnutrition may throw abnormal brain chemistry even more out of whack.

More research needs to be done in this area, but understanding how the brain gets like this can go a long way in helping health care providers detect and treat anorexia.

Sources: Eating Disorders Hope, Columbus Park Eating Disorder Experts, The Recovery Village
Photo: Pexels

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