Eating disorders present a unique challenge because they are not solely a physical OR psychological condition but BOTH—specifically, a behavioral (psychological) issue that involves eating (a physical event) and the hefty price (both physical and mental) of the resulting severe nutritional deficiencies.
In anorexia, Nervosa's cycle of self-starvation, the person’s body is repeatedly denied the nutrients it needs to function and is forced to slow down all of its processes to conserve energy.
This can result in:
- Abnormally slow heart rate and low blood pressure, indicating that the heart muscle is changing. This also presents a risk for heart failure and death.
- Reduction of bone density (osteoporosis).
- Muscle loss and weakness.
- Severe dehydration, which can trigger kidney failure.
- Fatigue and low energy.
- Dry hair and skin; hair loss.
- Electrolyte imbalances that can lead to irregular heartbeats, heart failure, and death.
- Gastric (stomach) rupture during periods of bingeing.
- Inflammation and rupture of the esophagus from frequent vomiting.
- Tooth decay from stomach acids released during frequent vomiting.
- Irregular bowel movements and chronic constipation.
- Peptic ulcers and pancreatitis.
Eating disorders are not as rare as you may think. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 20 million women and 10 million men in the US suffer from an eating disorder at some time in their life.
Despite their prevalence and serious health consequences, very little funding is awarded for their research as compared to other brain/psychological conditions like Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia.
And get this—the CDC doesn’t even have disease entries for anorexia or bulimia on its website!
But eating disorders are REAL conditions—not a fad, phase or lifestyle choice but a true illness for which people that are suffering need help.
And one of the places to look for help is in the area of certain nutritional deficiencies!
Here are three deficiencies that are recognized as triggers or contributing factors to eating disorders:
The zinc link
During the 1980s the idea began to emerge that certain nutritional deficiencies could play a part in the development of eating disorders when it was noted that the symptoms of zinc deficiency and anorexia were virtually identical:
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Impotence in males
- Skin lesions
Vitamin B6 helps create serotonin from the amino acid tryptophan. Serotonin is the body’s feel-good neurotransmitter that is linked with happiness. When our serotonin levels drop (as they can with B6 deficiency), so do our feelings of self-esteem.
This can create a dangerous cycle, especially in body-conscious young girls. As their self-esteem drops, girls tend to see themselves as “fat” (regardless of how slender they may be) and diet vigorously, which in turn even further depletes B6 and serotonin. Eventually, their serotonin-starved brain can become obsessed by thoughts they can’t turn off or behaviors (dieting) they can’t stop—creating a pathway to an eating disorder.
Omega-3 essential fatty acids
Omega-3 essential fatty acids are crucial to proper brain function, hormone production and neurotransmitter production (including serotonin).
Unfortunately, many people with eating disorders see all fats as fattening and something that must be avoided, thereby further worsening the challenges their brain has to deal with (including anxiety and depression) as well as making themselves susceptible to hormone imbalances and low serotonin levels.
Hope and healing from eating disorders
First and foremost, dealing with an eating disorder requires treatment with a skilled psychotherapist that is experienced with these conditions. Inpatient hospitalization may also be necessary depending on the severity of the condition.
In addition, filling the gaps with any nutrient deficiencies is a MUST!
Step one is to concentrate on nutritious real foods and avoid nutrient-poor refined carbohydrates and sugars as much as possible. Also, drinking adequate water is crucial to combat dehydration.
Step two is to seek out helpful supplements:
A full-spectrum multi-vitamin and mineral formula can provide healthful doses of zinc and vitamin B6, and serve as a “safety cushion” of other vital nutrients while the person recovering from the eating disorder is attempting to improve their eating habits.
Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil supplements are crucial since our food supply is severely lacking these fats that are essential to brain function. Omega-3 EFAs are also a natural anti-inflammatory which can help counteract a GI tract that may be inflamed due to frequent vomiting.
Probiotics can help ease chronic constipation as well as support a healthier intestinal environment and improved nutrient absorption.
A complete amino acid formula can help restore needed protein to the brain, heart and muscles, especially if the person recovering is a vegetarian or vegan. Also, vitamin B12 is a must to help restore energy and mental clarity for vegans and vegetarians since their diets are lacking in food (animal) sources of this nutrient.
By addressing both the psychological and physical/nutritional aspects of eating disorders, the level of success of the recovery process can be enhanced dramatically…eventually restoring better health and lifelong healthful eating patterns.