Each year millions of people in the United States are affected by serious and sometimes life-threatening eating disorders. More than 90 percent of those afflicted are adolescent and young adult women. It is suggested that the reason women in this age group are particularly vulnerable to eating disorders is because of their tendency to go on strict diets to achieve an "ideal" figure. Researchers have found that such stringent dieting can play a key role in triggering eating disorders.
The consequences of eating disorders can be severe - 5 percent to 20 percent of cases of anorexia nervosa leads to death from starvation, cardiac arrest, other medical complications, or suicide.
Increasing awareness of the dangers of eating disorders - sparked by medical studies and extensive media coverage of the illness - has led many people to seek help. Nevertheless, some people with eating disorders refuse to admit they have a problem and refuse treatment.
Binge eating disorder is an illness that resembles bulimia nervosa and is characterized by episodes of uncontrolled eating or bingeing. It differs from bulimia because its sufferers do not purge their bodies of the excess food via vomiting, laxative abuse, or diuretic abuse.
Individuals with binge eating disorder often:
- eat large quantities of food.
- do not stop eating until they are uncomfortably full.
- have a history of weight fluctuations.
- have more difficulty losing weight and keeping it off than people with other serious weight problems.
Binge eating disorder is found in 2 to 5 percent of the general population, and is more often seen in women than men.
Medical complications that may result from binge eating disorder include, but are not limited to, the following:
- obesity - overweight by 20 percent of normal weight
- increased risk for the following:
- high cholesterol
- high blood pressure
- gallbladder disease
- heart disease
- some types of cancer
- increased risk for psychiatric illnesses - particularly depression
People with binge eating disorder (and bulimia) typically consume huge amounts of food at one time - often junk food - to reduce stress and relieve anxiety.
- With binge eating, however, comes guilt and depression.
- Purging brings relief that is only temporary.
- Individuals with bulimia are usually impulsive and more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as abuse of alcohol and drugs.
To understand eating disorders, researchers have studied the neuroendocrine system, which is made up of a combination of the central nervous and hormonal systems.
The neuroendocrine system regulates multiple functions of the mind and body. It has been found that many of the following regulatory mechanisms may be, to some degree, disturbed in persons with eating disorders:
- sexual function
- physical growth and development
- appetite and digestion
- heart function
- kidney function
Many people with eating disorders also appear to suffer from depression, and is believed that there may be a link between these two disorders. For example:
- In the central nervous system, chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters control hormone production. The neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine have been discovered to have decreased levels in both acutely-ill anorexia and bulimia patients, and long-term recovered anorexia patients.
- Research has shown that some patients with anorexia may respond well to antidepressant medication that affects serotonin function in the body.
- People with anorexia, or certain forms of depression, seem to have higher than normal levels of cortisol, a brain hormone released in response to stress. It has been shown that the excess levels of cortisol in both persons with anorexia and in persons with depression are caused by a problem that occurs in, or near, the hypothalamus of the brain.
- Biochemical similarities have been discovered between people with eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and patients with OCD frequently have abnormal eating behaviors.
Because eating disorders tend to run in families, and female relatives are the most often affected, genetic factors are believed to play a role in the disorders.
But, other influences, both behavioral and environmental, may also play a role. Consider these facts from the National Institute of Mental Health:
- Although most victims of anorexia and bulimia are adolescent and young adult women, these illnesses can also strike men and older women.
- Anorexia and bulimia are found most often in Caucasians, but these illnesses also affect African-Americans and other races.
- People pursuing professions or activities that emphasize thinness - such as modeling, dancing, gymnastics, wrestling, and long-distance running - are more susceptible to these disorders.