What are eating disorders? Treating with mainstream and complementary medicine

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are a complex and serious group of mental illnesses associated with significant problems with eating habits, weight management practices, and body image. People with eating disorders have extreme attitudes towards food intake, weight, and body shape. These factors become unhealthy preoccupations, interfere with daily activities, and negatively impact quality of life.

Eating disorders can affect men and women of any age from a range of cultures and backgrounds. The two main types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

The key feature of anorexia nervosa is that the individual is focused on achieving and maintaining a low body weight. The goal weight is often so low that the body cannot function normally. Extreme dieting, food avoidance, purging behaviours (i.e. self-induced vomiting or laxative abuse), and excessive exercise are often used to reduce weight.

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by recurrent, uncontrolled periods of binge eating, followed by behaviours designed to compensate for the binge, such as extreme dieting, fasting, excessive exercise, or purging.

What are the causes of eating disorders?

There is no single cause of eating disorders. It is thought that a number of interacting psychological, biological, and social factors may contribute to the development of an eating disorder. These include:

  • Unstable or difficult family and personal relationships
  • Other mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety
  • Feelings of loneliness and social isolation
  • Feelings of loss of control
  • Feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy
  • High personal expectations and unrealistic personal goals
  • Major life changes or crises such as relationship breakdown or loss of a loved one
  • Imbalances in brain chemicals
  • Cultural attitudes around beauty and weight

 

Signs and symptoms of eating disorders

There are a number of signs and symptoms of eating disorders, and no two cases are identical. If you suspect that you or a loved one may have an eating disorder or may be developing one, it is very important to seek help. Early intervention is vital in preventing the development of long-term patterns, and promoting recovery. Signs of eating disorders can be mental, physical, or behavioural.

Mental signs:

  • Preoccupation with body weight and appearance
  • Poor concentration
  • Sudden mood changes, and feelings of irritability, sadness, or anger
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Distorted, negative body image
  • Constant preoccupation with food
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of loss of control

 

Physical signs:

  • Rapid weight loss or weight change
  • Irregular or absent menstrual periods in females
  • Sensitivity to cold
  • Faintness or dizziness
  • Fatigue and increased need for sleep

 

Behavioural signs:

  • Extreme and constant dieting
  • Disappearance of large amounts of food (may indicate binge eating)
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom around meal times (may suggest vomiting or laxative use)
  • Compulsive, excessive exercise
  • Changes in food preferences, fussy eating, or restrictive food choices
  • Obsessive rituals around food and eating
  • Withdrawal from social situations that involve food
  • Avoidance of eating meals, and frequent excuses not to eat
  • Social withdrawal or isolation
  • Wearing baggy clothes or changing clothing style
  • Lying about the amount or type of food eaten, eating in secret, or secretly throwing out uneaten food
  • Denial of hunger

 

Diagnostic considerations

At The Health Lodge, we run tests to gather more information relating to the health of patients with eating disorders.

  • Nutritional deficiencies are common in eating disorders, so we may screen for a number of nutrient deficiencies
  • Depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder are common co-morbidities in eating disorders, and can have major impacts on health. It may be important to test for zinc deficiency and copper overload, metabolic abnormalities such as raised urinary pyrroles, and genetic factors including MTHFR gene polymorphisms. These factors can all play major roles in a person’s psychological well being.
  • We may test levels of stress hormones, as these can be raised in eating disorders
  • Digestion may be impaired and tests that give us important information on digestive function may be needed.

 

Treatment options for eating disorders

Treatment of eating disorders can be a long and difficult journey. Many people with eating disorders do not seek treatment due to an unwillingness to change, feelings of fear and shame, or because they do not believe that their behaviour is a problem. Treatment of eating disorders is very important, as eating disorders can severely impact health, and in some cases can be fatal.

Eating disorders are incredibly complex, and are best treated by a team of health carers. One or more psychologists are essential in every health care team for a person with an eating disorder. Psychological support aims to help the individual to learn about their eating patterns and beliefs associated with eating and weight, and provides strategies to help shift dysfunctional attitudes and develop healthier behaviours. Strategies may include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Family therapy for children and adolescents
  • Education regarding eating disorders and factors that influence or increase the risk of developing eating disorders
  • Building self-esteem and improving self-awareness
  • Supporting and enhancing social and family relationships
  • Learning and developing tools to prevent relapse

 

At The Health Lodge, the integrated healthcare team will include:

  • A GP to oversee medication if required, diagnostics and specialist referrals
  • A naturopath to assist with digestive health and nutrient imbalances
  • A dietitian to advise on diet and eating practices
  • An acupuncturist to help treat underlying causes i.e. anxiety/depression
  • A yoga/meditation teacher to bring body awareness back into balance
  • A carer who has a prior history of eating disorders and can share the journey

 

Your integrative team of health care specialists

We believe that a multidisciplinary team of health care professionals is essential in managing all the aspects of eating disorders. The multidisciplinary team may include general practitioners, psychologists, dietitians or nutritionists, naturopaths, osteopaths, and acupuncturists. This comprehensive and holistic approach is designed to support the patient’s physical, mental, and emotional well being.

 

For enquiries call The Health Lodge on 02 6685 6445