Courtesy José Miguel SerranoA few years ago, some close friends called with the grim and heartbreaking news that their 21 year-old daughter had committed suicide. My first reaction was anger. Why would she do something like that? How could she cause such heartache for her family and friends? I knew she had been battling with the eating disorder known as anorexia nervosa since high school, but as it turns out I was totally oblivious to the magnitude of her disease. I knew nothing of the agony she had suffered or the struggle her family had gone through dealing with it. But it all became clear once she gave up hope and decided not to fight it anymore. At her funeral, memorial posters included shocking photographs of her decimated person wasting away in the throes of her disease. And in the weeks following, when my friends would relate stories of their desperate efforts to get their daughter to take in nourishment, or their exasperating attempts to get her back into treatment, or the hardships of just taking care of her in their own home, it became all too obvious that in her last years their poor daughter had led a very tortured and depressing struggle against herself.
But that’s how devastating anorexia nervosa can be. It’s an extremely puzzling and potentially deadly eating disorder characterized by a distorted body image, self-starvation, and excessive weight loss. One researcher described it as the body digesting its own nervous system. Nine out of ten of those diagnosed with the disease are female, and while it’s long been considered a white, suburban disorder, it’s now recognized that it can occur across all social and economic barriers. Incidents of the disease have risen since the 1950s, and some researchers blame the rise on the heavy cultural emphasis of beauty defined by flawless and very thin models.
But new research ties the troubling disorder to prenatal genetics and disrupted brain chemistry.
In the first study, it appears sex steroid hormones released by the mother into the womb during pregnancy could set up the female fetus for anorexia later in life. Researchers reached this conclusion after studying data from thousands of twins born in Sweden between 1935 and 1958. When comparing sets of female twins against sets of male twins, the females were statistically more likely to develop anorexia than the males, just as expected. However, with mixed-sex twins, the male was as likely to become anorexic as the female. This signaled to scientists that more than likely the triggering mechanism had to do with something taking place during pregnancy.
The second study, which was done by University of Pittsburg researchers, tested both anorexic and healthy patients while monitoring their brains with a magnetic resonance imaging device, Those subjects suffering from anorexia – and even those who were recovering from it - displayed unusual patterns of activity in regions of the brain associated with anxiety and perfectionism. Test questions were given and correct answers were rewarded. In the healthy women, the activity in the brain’s emotion-response center showed distinct differences when they won compared to when they lost. But the women with a history of anorexia showed very little emotional response no matter which way they answered.
Dr. Walter Kaye, the study’s head author, thinks this could affect how a person suffering from anorexia experiences the normally positive responses derived from eating food.
“For anorexics, then, perhaps it is difficult to appreciate immediate pleasure if it does not feel much different from a negative experience”, he said.
The study’s findings appeared in the American Journal of Psychiatry and could lead to new developments in fighting the disorder.
Since their daughter’s death, my friends have worked tirelessly to raise awareness of anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders, including establishing a treatment center in their daughter's name. And as that awareness grows, a tremendous amount of information has become available for anyone looking for answers and help.
Finally, the National Eating Disorders Awareness Week takes place from February 24 - March 1, 2008. If interested in participating you can learn more about it and register here.
Eating Disorder and Referral Information Center
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders
More Anorexia info
Anna Westin Foundation
More Links on Squidoo Health
Karen Carpenter's struggle with Anorexia