I just returned to NY after attending three full days of the Academy for Eating Disorders' annual ICED (International Conference on Eating Disorders) in Boston. I had the opportunity to hear ground-breaking new research from experts in the field of eating disorders, neuroscience, psychology, and medicine. My intention in sitting down to write on this Sunday morning is to be able to share a bit of what stood out to me with you, and that some of this information you can apply to your own recovery or in caring for a loved one.
1. Brain Change: Diet change that is associated with a reward (i.e. compliments on losing weight, coping with emotions etc) creates a new habit. Habit shifts activity into an area of the brain called the dorsal striatum. Over time, this behavior (ex/food restriction) becomes outcome independent, which means that it is no longer dependent on external cues or the 'because' to be reinforced. This finding supports, from a physiological perspective, why it is so difficult for someone struggling with an eating disorder to stop engaging in food-related habits or use future consequences as motivation.
2. Brain Plasticity: The prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain that myelinates the latest, is most modifiable, and is implicated in mental illness. Myelin is made of fatty acids and aids in the efficiency of a signal from one neuron to another. Did you know the brain is the organ that contains the most fat??? In recovery, weight gain leads to brain changes and the potential to recover white matter lost in severe restriction. (Yes, the brain actually shrinks and does not function properly during an active eating disorder!). In recovery, there is an improvement in cognitive tasks.
3. Exercise + Recovery: In one experiment, low body weight and increased running, even before any food restriction, was a predictor for anorexia. Compulsive exercise is associated with longer hospitalization, earlier time to relapse form an ED, and poor long term outcome. Exercising a lot when anorexic is also a predictor of suicide. On another note, learning to have a healthy relationship to exercise can also be vital in recovery, and has shown to decrease stress, depression, and anxiety. Ask me more about yoga and recovery!