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How can Anorexia Nervosa affect the body and mind?
Anorexia nervosa can affect people in different ways, as it depends upon the person with the illness and in many ways their pre-anorexia constitution. The information on this page covers some of the main effects which people have noted.
We would recommend Professor Janet Treasure’s and June Alexander’s (2013) book Anorexia Nervosa A Recovery Guide for Sufferers, Families and Friends, specifically chapters 6,7 and 8. The authors clearly examine in detail the often not seen or examined cognitive effects of the illness as well as the physical effects. With the book being designed for people experiencing the illness at first-hand (sufferers, family members and friends) it is written for an audience who are largely not familiar with medical terms and academic language. It is therefore ideal to gain an insight into the illness.
Simplistically, the effects of anorexia are clear, when a person starves the body begins to shut down, the brain cannot function properly, leading to various cognition problems which help to continue the vicious circle of starvation.
Imagine driving your car on the motorway and the fuel warning light comes on. You think you should just have enough fuel to get to the next service station, so you may drop your speed and drive to ensure you reach the services.
Now, imagine seeing the warning light, but instead of slowing down speeding up. Instead of driving to save fuel you are now weaving across the road to avoid traffic. Rather than slowing down because the engine is over-reeving your turn up the stereo to drown the sound out. Then imagine your surprise when the engine blows or the fuel runs out and your sat on the side of the road waiting for help with everyone else continuing their journey. Anorexia is a little like that.
Cognitive Effects of Anorexia Nervosa
If people are asked to think about anorexia, they are most likely to centre those thoughts around extreme weight loss and imagery of humans with bones sticking out. The actual effects of anorexia on the brain are often overlooked especially in the media.
Richard an anorexic man hospitalised after collapsing with damage to his gall bladder and pancreas said of his time in hospital “They weren’t interested in fixing the mental health and the eating disorder, because, I feel for them as doctors, what they knew best was how to fix the physical.” (Lyons 2018). Whilst it is understandable that Richard’s doctors had to fix the physical damage caused by his anorexia behaviours. It illustrates how the cognitive aspects can be ignored. Richard also said of his time in hospital “They kept me in there for months, in the dark, I remember getting frustrated and looking it up on-line myself, male eating disorders” (Lyons 2018). Unfortunately for Richard by the time he was released from hospital his weight had increased and was not low enough to get treatment from his local specialist eating disorder service. So despite being hospitalised with the complications from anorexia, he did not see a specialist eating disorders service whilst in hospital and when released was not deemed serious enough due to his weight.
Some of the best information we have historically is from Keys (1950) Biology of Human Starvation. Although old it is the last in-depth human experiment on the topic at starvation. The main element of Keys experiment was to look at ways in which people from war ravaged Europe could be re-feed using food stocks which were plentiful at the time. In order to do this a group of 36 male volunteers essentially went on starvation diets to lose weight. The men encountered a myriad of physical, biosocial and cognitive problems. Most worryingly was that in 20% of the men weight loss of as little of a 7% motional deterioration which impacted on day-to-day functioning. Most worryingly was that in 20% of the men weight loss of as little of a 7% emotional deterioration which impacted on day-to-day functioning. It is strange that in the DSM IV (American Psychiatric Association, 2000) a figure of 15% below ideal body weight was used as a sign of seriousness. However in the DSM 5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) the 15% figure has been removed.
Some of the main Cognitive Impacts of Anorexia
- Lowered mood/depression – pessimism, hopelessness, inability to take pleasure from life
- Pre-occupation with food and the urge to overeat
- Isolation/Loss of interest in relationships (platonic/sexual)
- Problems concentrating
- Catastrophizing problems – small problems are like mountains and seem unsurmountable
- Impairment of complex thought, which can lead to poor decision making
Click on each of the body parts to reveal the associated symptoms.