Several years ago I participated in a research study that examined the neurological aspects of an eating disorder. The purpose of the study was to compare the differences between the brain of someone with an eating disorder, the brain of someone who has recovered from one, and a healthy brain who had not gone through an eating disorder. At the time mine was an eating disorder brain and now it’s one that has recovered. And there are differences in how the brain functions depending on the stage of the disease.

Sick Brain

This post was triggered based on the fact that this past week I was hit hard with an infection. I spent four days in bed with fevers, chills, nausea, lack of appetite, and foggy brain. Symptoms like that turn just about anyone away from eating. And for most people, reduced calorie intake during acute sickness is fine and doesn’t have long-term effects. But for individuals with an eating disorder, these symptoms can trigger eating disorder thoughts and behaviors.

Eating Disorder Brain

We can all agree that humans are instilled with survival instincts and mechanisms. This fact makes eating disorder brain perplexing. How can the brain let down those survival instincts and mechanisms when the eating disorder brain takes over?

There’s no short answer, really. The good news is research is actively engaged in trying to answer this question. And so far research is showing the brains of those with and recovered from eating disorders are different than those who have never struggled with a disorder. Researchers see a different reward response, a different way of responding to neurological feedback, and altered serotonin pathways. This is progress as this helps us understand the disease better.

Which explains why recovery is so challenging and why something like sickness can be a trigger.

Eating Disorder Brain vs. Recovery Brain

When I was going through treatment, my psychologist would say, “do you think that’s your eating disorder brain talking”? It was a tool to help me identify when the disease was talking. Identifying eating disorder brain thoughts took practice. But I was actively engaged in my recover and over time it got a easier. Which led to replacement thoughts and developing different neurological pathways in the brain. All encouraging different behaviors.

This past week, I could nearly hear how my eating disorder brain would have used this sickness to its benefit.

 

Sick Symptom

Eating Disorder Brain

Recovery Brain

You are feeling nauseous because of the fever. 

A physical symptom to

justify not eating.

I know consuming small, easy-to-digest foods can help with the nausea.
There’s the lack of appetite. Perhaps you can lose a few pounds by the end of this sickness since you’re feeling nauseous and have no appetite.

Your body isn’t well-attuned with many internal signals right now since it’s dedicating a lot of mental energy towards fighting off a virus. Small meals can help give you the energy you need when I need it most.

 

Weight loss, not now!

In November 2016, Gallup Poll reported that for the past ten years in the United States, on average, 60% of women and 46% of men say they are interested in losing weight. With half our population wanting to lose weight, taking advantage of acute sickness to do that seems to be culturally accepted. And it probably feels natural to boast about weight loss after a sickness. But acute sickness is not the time to lose weight, to hope for weight loss, or to encourage weight loss.

Without going too far into biology, in metabolism some substances are broken down to yield energy for vital processes while other substances are synthesized. When sick, cell metabolism increases so these cells can more effectively carry out their job of fighting and resisting the invasion of the pathogen. Working hard to get us better.
If your cells are doing more, they utilize more energy since nearly all cell functions require at least some energy input. So any time your body is working harder, you are burning more ATP (energy). Moral of this biology lesson is metabolism isn’t just about calorie burn and weight management/loss.
And you need to eat in order to give the cells the energy they need to fight off the pathogen.

Understanding Eating Disorder Thoughts

If you’re someone who hasn’t experienced an eating disorder it can be challenging to understand how the eating disorder brain gets from thought a to thought b. And if you’re someone who has suffered from an eating disorder, you know that these thoughts can be so automatic and habitual that you don’t realize you have them. The goal of effective treatment is to make recovery and healthy behaviors habits of their own, so that returning to the eating disorder brain will be as incomprehensible as the recovery brain once was.

We still have a lot to learn about the neurobiology of eating disorders, like how those neurological risk factors might interact with cultural messages about weight and body image.

 

Even though eating disorder brain encourages weight loss during sickness, your body needs fuel during this time. Eating disorder brain vs recovery brain.