Eating Disorders

Better Life Therapy offers compassionate outpatient treatment for individuals with eating disorders.

Sometimes you can only find heaven by slowly backing away from Hell.

Carrie Fisher

What is an Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is a complex behavioral disorder in which a person’s patterns of eating and exercise are changed in ways that threaten their physical and mental health. Though eating is in the name, eating disorders are about much more than food and diet. 

A person with an eating disorder may have started out eating smaller or larger amounts of food, often in an effort to lose weight. For most people, changing their eating habits in these small ways does not lead to an eating disorder. However, for those with a genetic predisposition to disordered eating, small changes in diet can lead to a full-blown eating disorder. 

Individuals with eating disorders often feel extreme distress and concern about their body weight and shape. This body image distress may start out small, but paradoxically grow as the eating disorder worsens. Being deeply unsatisfied with one’s body weight and shape can lead to changes in eating habits, which may include restriction of food, food binges, or purging behaviors like vomiting or over-exercising.

Common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.

Though eating is in the name, eating disorders are about much more than food and diet. 

Why does someone develop an eating disorder?

The reasons for developing an eating disorder are complex, but researchers are learning more every day. Eating disorders are caused by a complex interaction of genetic, biological, behavioral, psychological, and social factors. There is not one reason someone develops an eating disorder. Eating disorders are not rooted in vanity or superficiality; they are serious medical, psychological and physical disorders.

One factor for developing an eating disorder is genetics. Researchers are studying gene combinations to determine if any DNA variations are linked to the risk of developing eating disorders. One of psychological science’s most powerful research tools is twin studies because identical twins share 100% of their DNA but have different environmental factors. An aggregate of these studies has shown that if one twin develops an eating disorder, the other has about a 50% likelihood of developing one too, on average. This means there we can attribute about 50% of the cause of an eating disorder to someone’s genes.

Biology is another factor. We know that levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine may be factorsin developing an eating disorder.

Cultural impacts also have an effect. In cultures not exposed to the beauty standards of the West, we see much lower prevalence of eating disorders.

Researchers are studying questions about behavior, genetics, and brain function to better understand risk factors, identify biological markers, and develop specific psychotherapies and medications that can target areas in the brain that control eating behavior. Neuroimaging and genetic studies may provide clues for how each person may respond to specific treatments for these illnesses.

What are the signs & symptoms of eating disorders?

Anorexia nervosa

The key symptom of anorexia nervosa is extreme restriction of food intake. In people with anorexia nervosa, eating, food, and weight control are often 24-hour per day obsessions. Many people with anorexia nervosa see themselves as overweight, despite being clearly, and often dangerously, underweight. People with anorexia nervosa may weigh themselves repeatedly, portion food carefully, and eat very small quantities of only limited foods. Some people with anorexia nervosa may exhibit other behaviors, including binge-eating followed by extreme dieting, purging through excessive exercise or self-induced vomiting, and/or misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or enemas.

Anorexia nervosa includes the following symptoms, though not all symptoms are necessary for a diagnosis:

  • A relentless pursuit of thinness and unwillingness to maintain a normal or healthy weight
  • Intense fear of weight gain
  • Distorted body image, a self-esteem that is heavily influenced by perceptions of body weight and shape, or a denial of the seriousness of low body weight
  • Extreme thinness (emaciation)
  • Lack of menstruation among girls and women
  • Extremely restricted eating.

Other symptoms may develop over time, including:

  • Thinning of the bones (osteopenia or osteoporosis)
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Dry and yellowish skin
  • Growth of fine hair all over the body (lanugo)
  • Mild anemia and muscle wasting and weakness
  • Severe constipation
  • Low blood pressure, slowed breathing and pulse
  • Damage to the structure and function of the heart
  • Brain damage
  • Multiorgan failure
  • Drop in internal body temperature, causing a person to feel cold all the time
  • Lethargy, sluggishness, or feeling tired all the time
  • Infertility.

Bulimia Nervosa

Patients with bulimia nervosa have recurrent and frequent episodes of eating unusually large amounts of food and feeling a lack of control over these episodes. This binge-eating is followed by behavior that compensates for the overeating such as forced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, excessive exercise, or a combination of these behaviors.

Unlike anorexia nervosa, people with bulimia nervosa usually maintain what is considered a healthy or normal weight, while some are slightly overweight. But like people with anorexia nervosa, they often fear gaining weight, want desperately to lose weight, and are intensely unhappy with their body size and shape. Usually, bulimic behavior is done secretly because it is often accompanied by feelings of disgust or shame. The binge-eating and purging cycle happens anywhere from several times a week to many times a day.

Other symptoms include:

  • Chronically inflamed and sore throat
  • Swollen salivary glands in the neck and jaw area
  • Worn tooth enamel, increasingly sensitive and decaying teeth as a result of exposure to stomach acid
  • Acid reflux disorder and other gastrointestinal problems
  • Intestinal distress and irritation from laxative abuse
  • Severe dehydration from purging of fluids
  • Electrolyte imbalance (too low or too high levels of sodium, calcium, potassium and other minerals) which can lead to heart attack.

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disordered is characterized by episodes of feeling out of control and often-trance-like in eating. Unlike bulimia nervosa, periods of binge-eating are not followed by purging, excessive exercise, or fasting. As a result, people with binge-eating disorder often are over-weight or obese. People with binge-eating disorder who are obese are at higher risk for developing cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. They also experience guilt, shame, and distress about their binge-eating, which can lead to more binge-eating.

What type of therapy works best for eating disorders?

We use a variety of approaches in treating eating disorders. 

Some evidenced-based strategies that we employ include:

  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy 
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy
  • Cognitive Behavior Therapy
  • Psychodynamic Psychotherapy

We believe helping you to figure out what matters to you more than your eating disorder.

Better Life Therapy has therapists who specialize in the treatment of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. 

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