Eating Disorders Help & Treatment
Eating disorders are a serious and complex health issue which involves abnormal behaviours and attitudes towards foods. Ranging from strict or unorthodox diets, to restricting and obsessing over calorie intake, to binge-eating high quantities of junk food or sweets, and vomiting (purging) after eating.
The three main branches of eating disorders include anorexia (severe restriction of calorie intake resulting in starvation), bulimia (being sick or abusing laxatives to purge the body of foods consumed), and overeating (excess binge eating).
The Neurobiology Behind Eating Disorders
One of the most natural functions of the human brain is that it is wired to recognise when, how often, and what we are eating since food is our main source of energy. However, there can be certain complexities within the brain which can cause eating disorders and change our healthy attitude to food into an unhealthy one.
There have been several pieces of research done on eating disorders which clearly show us that the brain is ‘wired’ in a different way in patients who are struggling with an eating disorder. You might think about this as messages circulating the brain in a different manner than what we view as being ‘normal,’ with altered neuropathways being observed in those struggling with conditions such as anorexia.
What’s most interesting is that as a result of the different neurological makeup of patients with an eating disorder, varied treatments can be developed, depending on the brain structure of the individual patient. This gives hope for effective treatment of this classification of illness.
What Is An Eating Disorder?
In the most simple terms, an eating disorder is a shift in your attitude to food, rather than having a healthy relationship with it, patients with an eating disorder have an unhealthy relationship with food.
Patients struggling with eating disorders may present in a variety of ways including unhealthy thinking patterns relating to foods and behaviours which are not conducive to a good relationship with food. These behaviours are usually repeated: therefore the patient finds themselves in a vicious circle where their eating habits are concerned.
One of the most important aspects of an eating disorder is that there will always be an underlying psychological or emotional reason for the behaviour – eating disorders can affect anyone.
There are different types of eating disorders, all of which feature slightly different behaviours relating to nutrition and the consumption of foods. Below we discuss each condition in more detail:
Patients suffering from anorexia have a fear of gaining weight, for this reason, they will avoid eating and may engage in intense exercise regimes in order to keep weight off.
Those with anorexia often appear very underweight but due to the psychological issues, they often believe that this is not the case.
Patients with anorexia may also experience fear when it comes to preparing foods for other people as well as issues with their own eating habits.
Binge eating is a condition in which the patient will regularly consume large portions of food, regardless of whether they are hungry or not.
Eating can become a type of obsession but can cause severe psychological effects and patients will often experience emotions associated with shame and guilt after eating large quantities of food. For this reason, they may begin eating in isolation.
Those struggling with binge eating will often pay little attention to the nutritional value of the foods that they eat, which can result in weight problems and the health issues relating to them.
Those struggling with bulimia will behave in a pattern whereby they feel the need to take part in binge eating but then find themselves fearful of gaining weight.
For this reason, they will take part in an act to remove any unnecessary calories that they have consumed - most commonly, forced vomiting.
But some patients will also make use of laxative products. Patients may also engage in extreme exercise after a bout of binge eating or go through a phase of not eating at all.
Individuals who struggle with orthorexia have an unhealthy attitude towards foods that are not deemed to be nutritious or healthy. They may feel a great sensation of disgust when confronted with foods that they deem to be unhealthy and this extends to seeing other people consuming them.
Many patients experience physical symptoms similar to those who suffer from anorexia, in that they may struggle with weight gain as a result of limited eating.
The psychological effects of this condition can be devastating with patients becoming obsessed with how many calories they are taking in and making this their main priority, with all other important aspects of their lives taking a back seat.
Why Do People Develop Eating Disorders?
An eating disorder can be related to a variety of factors including psychological issues, emotional problems, environmental factors and our genetic makeup.
Unfortunately, modern culture dictates that being slim is much more attractive than being overweight and as a result of this message which is continually conveyed by the media, many people experience a negative psychological reaction.
This can translate into an unhealthy attitude to eating as a way to achieve ‘the perfect body.’ Once a person falls into this trap, they can find it very difficult to get back out.
In addition to this psychological development of eating disorders, some patients may use food as a way of coping with difficult situations or emotions, it can allow them to gain back a sense of control. However, in some cases, food may be used as a comfort or distraction.
There is some suggestion that your genetic makeup may play a part in how susceptible you might be to developing an eating disorder and that in some cases children of those with eating disorders may be more likely to develop one themselves.
It is also a fact that more women than men tend to develop these types of illnesses, however, there are certain other groups of people who may be more susceptible:
- Ethnic minorities
- Those in the LGBTQ+ community
- Young people or teens
Health Risks Of Eating Disorders
With food being such an integral part of human survival, the unhealthy relationship with it observed in those with eating disorders is bound to have a serious effect on health. Each of the common eating disorders comes with its own set of health risks, which we will look at in the following paragraphs:
Patients with anorexia face an increased rate of mortality, this is the most serious health concern relating to the condition. That being said, there are other issues that sufferers of the illness may experience:
- Low blood pressure which could result in heart failure
- Liver and kidney failure
- Loss of muscle
- Irregular or ceased periods in women and problems with fertility in any gender
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Extreme fatigue
- Problems with the bones included deterioration
- Suicide as a result of the mental health impact of the condition
- Formation of lungo - a type of hair which the body grows as a way of staying warm once body fat is lost
Those struggling with bulimia may notice that they have some serious side effects relating to the digestive system. This is caused by the extreme activity and pressure put upon it through the binge and purge aspects of the condition:
Patients may also experience any of the following health risks.
- Mood swings
- Imbalance of the minerals in the body
- Issues with bowel movements including constipation and irregularity
- Stomach rupturing
- Inflammation of the pancreas
- Type 2 diabetes
- Tooth decay and other dental issues as a result of stomach acid in the mouth
Many people who struggle with binge eating are overweight or obese - this has a whole host of health problems on its own. In addition to these, patients with binge eating disorder are more likely to suffer from the following health issues:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Increased risk of heart disease
- Stomach rupturing
- Sleep apnea
- Gallstones and other problems with the gallbladder
The Importance Of Getting Help
One of the most notable difficulties in treating an eating disorder at home is that food cannot be omitted from our lives. Regardless of an eating disorder, the patient still requires food to survive, but their relationship with it means that trying to self-help at home is often a fruitless activity. For this reason, seeking help is essential.
By accessing professional help, people are much more likely to be able to deal with the psychological aspects of eating disorders and find a way to regain a healthy approach to food.
1. How Can We Help?
We offer a helpline service which is open every day of the year and offers help and support for anyone struggling with an eating disorder, or the family and friends of sufferers. Our friendly team are empathetic and understanding and will never pass judgement, offering a safe space to talk about your problems and the options you have.
We can also offer a range of information surrounding eating disorders on a more practical level and are happy to talk through the best course of action is dealing with your current struggles.
2. Where To Start On My Recovery
Eating disorders are a complex group of illnesses and each case will require a different approach to treatment, this is why it is important to get medical advice from a trained professional. An excellent place to start is by booking an appointment to see your GP, who can talk through your options with you.
However, your GP is not specially trained in treating eating disorders to being referred to a specialist team is the beginning of your journey to recovery. Within this team of people, there will likely be mental health therapists, dietitians, and various dentists and doctors to ensure that you receive the most thorough and effective treatment from all angles.
3. What Will Happen Once I Ask For Help?
Upon seeing your GP for the first time about your eating disorder, he or she will take your weight and may take a blood sample. You will also be encouraged to talk about any concerns you may have and problems that you have recently encountered regarding your weight and eating habits.
It can be quite intimidating to open up about these issues but rest assured that your doctor will be understanding and helpful. You are free to take along a friend or family member for support who can also provide the doctor with any information that they deem relevant.
After this initial appointment, you will be referred on to a more specialist doctor or professional who can make a detailed assessment of your needs and develop of a treatment plan tailored specifically for you.
Types Of Treatment
Whilst many people with an eating disorder will follow an outpatient treatment plan, there are a variety of options depending on the individual case. Eating disorders are complex and can vary from person to person so your options will be discussed at length to ensure the best success in your treatment plan.
This is a form of treatment that is offered to patients who require more support than a regular outpatient treatment plan can offer but are still able to continue on with their daily lives including attending school and a place of work.
Patients will be seen frequently by their support team and whilst this is unique to each patient will normally be between two and five days each week.
The types of treatments you can expect to access from this kind of plan range from psychological therapies and family or group support right through to support from a dietitian who can offer nutrition advice and an eating plan.
If you are struggling severely with an eating disorder, you may benefit from residential placement to undergo treatment where you will receive 24-hour care.
You will be offered routine and structure as a way of helping you to concentrate on getting better and have access to medical care around the clock.
This type of treatment usually lasts for up to three weeks and is beneficial to those who require intensive 24-hour medical care. This can help to stabilize weight and will usually be followed by a residential program in a suitable facility.
If you have taken part in a residential program, you will require ongoing treatment in order to ensure that your problems do not resurface.
This continuing treatment will give you further access to support from a therapist as well as appointments with your nutritionist. The plan will be tailored to your needs and the appointments will reflect this.
Can Medications Help My Recovery?
Whilst there is not any kind of medication available to treat an eating disorder, there are drugs that can be prescribed as a way of dealing with any underlying issues such as depression or anxiety. However, it is important to keep in mind that medications alone cannot fully treat an eating disorder or its root cause.
In some instances, these types of medications may not be suitable due to health concerns. If you are struggling with an eating disorder such as anorexia, the body may lose its ability to absorb medications as effectively as normal and this could result in further physical damage so it is important to discuss your personal situation with your health care provider who will decide on the most appropriate course of action.
Therapy For Eating Disorders
There are a variety of therapy options for patients with eating disorders, your personal needs will depend on what type of therapy will benefit you as well as what is available in your local area.
Dealing with any underlying mental health issues as well as issues that may have played a part in why you developed an eating disorder is a key to ensuring that you are returned to full health – both physically and psychologically:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a form of therapy designed to deal with any negative thought you have and how you might challenge them and ultimately, change them
- Medical nutrition therapy is an evidence-based approach to nutrition which enables you to build a nutrition plan to overcome your difficulties. Each plan is tailored to the patient based on their own personal needs
- Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) is a form of talking therapy that is aimed at those who struggle with intense emotions and can help in developing an understanding of your feelings as well as ways of dealing with them. This can then lead to you being more easily able to make positive adaptations in your life
- Acceptance and commitment therapy is a mindfulness approach to accepting one’s thoughts and embracing them rather than allowing oneself to feel shame or guilt because of them.
- Art therapy is often used in the treatment of eating disorders and allows patients to communicate their feelings through expression and art
- Dance movement therapy works in a similar way to art therapy, allowing a patient to express themselves through movement and cope with stress through this art form. This type of therapy is also particularly useful in aiding those with muscle loss and can strengthen muscles
- Equine therapy is another way of managing stress levels and diverting the mind onto a positive activity. It has been proven time and time again to be successful in a variety of mental health situations
- Exposure and response prevention therapy is a great way of being exposed to your fears in a controlled environment to develop the ability to overcome them and not respond to them through the need to control them. It is a common technique used in obsessive-compulsive disorders
- Family therapy can be beneficial in helping the whole family support the person struggling with an eating disorder
- Interpersonal psychotherapy allows you to explore any possible links between your behaviour and any problems you have in relating to people in your life.
- The Maudsley method is a form of family therapy designed by a specialist team at the Maudsley hospital in London. In this approach, parents are used as a positive role model and support and are used mostly in the treatment of young people struggling with anorexia
The Importance Of Healthy Eating In Recovery
It is vital that whilst in recovery, you ensure that you follow a healthy eating plan and this will be highly encouraged by your care team. The main reason for this is that a good diet will enable your body to regain weight and strength as well as the important nutrients that it may be lacking as a result of your condition.
It may seem like a challenge but you will be given the support of an experienced dietitian to help you to learn the importance of a balanced diet and staying in good health, providing your body with the various proteins, fats, and carbs that it needs to function properly.
There may be instances in which patients are physically unable to eat and there are options available as a last resort such as a feeding tube or supplements.
How Can Yoga Help Overcome An Eating Disorder?
Yoga has been proven to have a wide range of health benefits an recovering from an eating disorder is no exception to this. Yoga is used as a way of bringing the mind and body together through a variety of poses, known as asanas.
For recovery from eating disorders, yoga can enable an individual to regain awareness over their body and bring about an improvement in mood. In addition to this, it may also improve concentration and cause the patient to feel much more at ease and relaxed, in turn, this can translate into greater feelings of self-confidence.
What’s more is that yoga has been shown to allow for a better and more restful night’s sleep which is conducive to physical healing, especially in patients who have suffered physical side effects as a result of an eating disorder.
Finally, since yoga has the ability to improve mood and focus, this can often create less frequent episodes of being impulsive or making rash decisions which can cause severe consequences in those struggling with an unhealthy relationship with food.
Learn Healthier Ways To Cope With Emotional Pain
It is not uncommon for most people to be faced with some form of emotional pain at some point during their lives and handling this in a healthy way is vital in ensuring that problems like eating disorders do not develop. The good news is that there are ways to learn healthier ways of coping with emotional pain.
Some of the most effective ways might be as follows:
- Reach out to friends or family members, either on the telephone, via text message, or in-person
- Go for a walk or run
- Play with a pet
- Listen to music
- Write in a journal
- Watch a movie
- Ask someone else if there is anything you can do to help them
Advice For Parents
One of the most important things when it comes to dealing with a young person and eating disorders is to keep the lines of communication open, even if it is a difficult subject to talk about. Be open and honest with your child and encourage them to do the same. Let them know that you are always available for them to discuss their problems and concerns with you.
Some adolescents may become reserved and perhaps even rude but it is important that you remain calm and understanding, allowing them to vent their emotions in a secure environment. It is important to come across as a support and not judgemental. Try using ‘I’ statements such as ‘I am concerned about you.’ This is much less accusatory and may help them to open up more.
When it comes to food and eating, you should never be pushy or overly assertive as this may have the opposite effect than what you hope for. It can help to include the young person in planning meals so that they feel as though they have some control.
In addition to this, you could try to make mealtimes as enjoyable as possible and avoid any talk about portion sizes or dieting. Use this as an opportunity to spend time as a family, this will give a sense of stability and routine.
You should arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible through research, speaking to other people and engaging with the healthcare team involved in your child’s care. But you may also want to seek support for yourself as dealing with these kinds of issues can place pressure on your own mental health.
The Do’s And Don’t Of Living With Anorexia
If you are living with anorexia, taking care of yourself should be your main priority and there are certain ‘rules’ which you should apply in order to be as successful as possible when it comes to managing your condition.
- Do allow yourself to experience your emotions
- Do be vulnerable around those who care about you – there is no shame in this
- Don’t try to act as though you aren’t feeling something when you are
- Do let those around you be a comfort
- Do allow your emotions to ebb and flow without fearing them
- Don’t allow anyone to make you feel embarrassed or shameful because of your condition
- Don’t focus on food if your emotions become difficult