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Physiological Causes & Effects of Eating Disorders

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson is going to go over some common eating disorders, their effects on a person, and some physiological issues that might contribute to these disorders.

Eating Disorders & Mental Health

A lot of people associate eating disorders with some sort of mental health concern, such as anxiety, low self-esteem, and emotional stress. But eating disorders may arise as a result of physiological causes, or physiological causes can contribute to eating disorders. So, in reality, eating disorders are complex issues.

This lesson is going to teach you about some of the potential physiological causes of eating disorders and the effects eating disorders can have on people.

Most Common Eating Disorders & Their Effects

Some of the most common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorders.

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that is characterized by a fear of gaining weight, an inadequate intake of food, a very low body weight, and an inappropriate self-image. The effects of anorexia nervosa can be very serious and include:

  • Extremely low body weight
  • Thinning hair
  • Swelling of the arms or legs
  • Fatigue
  • Abnormal blood counts
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Constipation
  • Abnormal heart rhythms
  • Osteoporosis

Psychological concerns, such as irritability, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social withdrawal, depression, and thoughts of suicide, can also occur.

Bulimia nervosa refers to an eating disorder where people eat large amounts of food and then engage in behaviors that are designed to get rid of the extra calories they ate. These can include vomiting soon after eating, using laxatives, or exercising excessively to ''burn'' the extra calories. The effects of bulimia nervosa include:

  • Discolorations or changes to the shape of teeth as a result of frequent vomiting
  • Heart arrhythmias
  • Hemorrhoids due to laxative abuse
  • Swelling of the body due to the use of laxatives and diuretics or improper nutrition
  • Blood in vomit due to the irritation of the esophagus
  • Dizziness
  • Dry skin

Psychological conditions, such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and social phobias, often occur in conjunction with bulimia nervosa.

Binge eating disorder is an eating disorder where a person consumes excessive amounts of food on a frequent basis. The signs, symptoms, and complications stemming from binge eating disorder include:

  • Recurrent episodes of binge eating
  • Eating really quickly, even if it hurts
  • Eating when not feeling hungry
  • A feeling of a lack of control during the binge episodes
  • A sense of guilt or shame regarding those episodes
  • A potentially increased risk of depressive symptoms

Physiological Causes

It is far from clear exactly how or why any of these three conditions occur. There are numerous neurobiological and neurodevelopmental factors involved. Here are just a few theories as to the physiological issues that might lead to eating disorders.

There might be an impaired function of various areas of the brain related to the sensation of hunger or taste. Or, it could be that the receptors responsible for first sensing hunger and taste are themselves defective and there is nothing wrong functionally or structurally with the brain. There could also be an imbalance of hormones in terms of those that reward behaviors and those that inhibit them.

Certain physiological changes that lead or contribute to eating disorders might stem from changes in the way genes are expressed as a result of environmental stimuli. For instance, a person coming from a country exposed to starvation may have an overexpression of genes that lead to appetite suppression.

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