NH21 Weekly comes to you from a very personal space today, having flaunted with various erratic eating behaviours in earlier years.

US researchers have now found in bulimic women decreased blood flow to a part of the brain involved in self-critical thinking; supporting the idea they may be using food to avoid dwelling on negative thoughts about themselves.

In a novel study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology researchers scanned the brains of women given stressful tasks to accomplish whilst showing them pictures of high-calorie foods!

For women with bulimia, blood flow to a region of the brain called the precuneus decreased when they looked at food pictures; but in women without bulimia, it increased.

Sarah Fischer, co-author of the study and associate professor at George Mason University, said;

“We would expect to see increased blood flow in this region when someone is engaged in self-reflection, rumination or self-criticism.”

Fischer said the findings could help women to control their binge-eating triggers.

“We found that it doesn’t take much stress to trigger binge-eating. I would love to see if teaching basic emotion-regulation behavioural skills works for some women.” 

And indeed, NH21 wonders, perhaps even men!

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by episodes of uncontained binge eating, often involving large amounts of high-calorie foods, followed by one or more of the following attempts at ‘purging’ the body;

  • Induced vomiting.
  • Use of laxatives.
  • Use of diuretics.
  • Excessive exercise.

Usually the person doing the binging feels out of control; a sense of not being able to stop eating until they are completely full, and then so overwhelmed by a sense of shame that they feel compelled to rid the body of the foods just consumed. This binging and purging cycle is mostly carried out in secret; which is a key indication of a serious psychological disorder with potentially severe medical complications.

Bulimia nervosa can lead to problems including anemia (deficiency of hemoglobin in the blood resulting in pallor and weariness), electrolyte imbalances, erratic heartbeat, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), internal hemorrhage (bleeding), liver and kidney damage, malnutrition, irregular menstruation, loss of muscle mass, decreased bone density and lowered immunity. Additionally, due to the highly acidic nature of the vomit ejected from the stomach; tooth decay, receding gums, and stomach ulcers are common among chronic bulimics.

Eating disorders such as Bulimia nervosa frequently appear during the teen years or young adulthood, but can also develop during childhood or later in life. Whilst they do affect both genders, rates among women are 2½ times greater than among men; although it is thought that men may be less inclined to report it. Like women who have eating disorders, men also have a distorted sense of body image. For example, men may have muscle dysmorphia, a type of disorder marked by an extreme concern with becoming more muscular.

As a further complication in some, but not all instances, the loss of body fat can severely disrupt estrogen levels in female sufferers, resulting in an increased likelihood of developing osteoporosis, and in severely chronic (long-term) cases, even cancer.

Eating disorders are caused by a complex interaction of genetic, biological, behavioral, psychological, and social factors. Although people may develop an eating disorder because they want to look and feel better about themselves, the opposite is often the case. People with Bulimia nervosa can become completely consumed with thoughts about their weight, have a distorted image of their figures, and feel disgusted with themselves for not having what they perceive to be a perfect body.

Other typical psychological implications can include extreme anger aimed at those they believe to be interfering, plus chronic anxiety, depression and fear of being found out; leading to isolation, loneliness and a tendency towards obsessive compulsive disorder. People with Bulimia nervosa may also exhibit other extreme behaviour patterns such as alcoholism or drug abuse, and even credit card abuse and shoplifting in an attempt to feel a sense of control over certain aspects in their lives.

Unlike people with Anorexia nervosa, whose self-starvation eventually becomes obvious to the naked eye, bulimics may appear to be ‘normal’ weight, helping them to hide the disorder for years. Ironically, due to the tendency towards binging on refined carbohydrates, bulimics may even be overweight.

Yet certain signs are difficult to hide to the observant caregiver. Physical signs can include swollen glands in the face and neck, erosion of enamel on the teeth, cracked lips, broken blood vessels around the eyes and face, constant sore throat and inflammation of the oesophagus; all of which are consequences of self-induced vomiting.

Additional signs include bad breath, constantly cold hands and feet, dizziness, fainting, unexplained hair loss, muscle wastage, dry skin and premature wrinkles.

It is important for anybody with an eating disorder to seek help, and eating disorders are rarely corrected by focusing on food alone. Yet food can, all-the-same be, used to encourage positive thinking; making it a potentially valuable tool in a multi-disciplinary approach to effective cure.

Due to the body-mind connection that is increasingly coming to be recognized by medical science, the beneficial effects on the physical body of increasing health promoting foods, whilst simultaneously reducing or avoiding poor quality refined versions, can positively affect the mind state of a person prone to dwelling on negative thoughts.

The foods we eat are broken down during the digestive process, allowing their constituent particles to interact with the brains neurotransmitters; including those that affect the precuneus identified in the new US study.

Scientifically proven mood lifting foods include salmon, walnuts, eggs, red meat, green tea, dark chocolate, coffee, seaweed, avocado and legumes.

This is certainly not intended to suggest that they would easily fix complicated conditions such as Bulimia nervosa; yet it would be interesting to perform retrospective studies to determine the types of food eaten by the bulimics in the study, and whether or not these health promoting foods were present in early childhood, before their symptoms first appeared.