Jeffrey Kaminer ('21)
One of the factors that make a person more likely to develop an eating disorder is the way that their brain is structured and functioned. There are specific neurobiological differences in the brains of people with eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder. Investigating the role of neurotransmitters has led scientists to link a person that has an eating disorder with their own biological makeup.
In the brain, there are neurotransmitters (chemicals that transfer information between neurons which are nerve cells) . In order to process and receive messages signaled by the brain, neurotransmitters must bind to a specialized protein called a receptor that is a “perfect fit”.
Neurotransmitters use their specific receptors on a neighboring neuron to transfer encoded information. One can think of this almost like a magnet where one neuron must transfer information to another through specialized receptors in order to propel encoded information to successfully pass down a message. However, variations in shape and number of receptors that neurotransmitters attach to, can lead to misinformation and cause mental illnesses. The two main neurotransmitters associated with eating disorders are serotonin and dopamine.
Variations in the serotonin receptor cause people with ED’s (eating disorders) to have a below-average level of serotonin because of ineffective communication between the neurotransmitter and its receptor.
This decrease in serotonin, however, actually increases the number of receptors in order to utilize the remaining serotonin levels. Therefore, even people who are struggling to recover from an eating disorder find it difficult as their body has already adapted to low serotonin levels in order for them to maintain stability. Without adequate support, the person in an ED who is trying to recover can experience symptoms of anxiety and OCD because of the influx of serotonin levels produced as food enters the body.
Additionally, people with binge eating disorders, such as bulimia nervosa also experience low levels of serotonin due to insufficient diet that again spikes up when they consume an excessive amount of food that leads to a chain of impulsivity and control loss. Without a doubt, in order to hinder possible causes of other mental disorders through recovery, people in relation to the person struggling with an eating disorder must commit to being a strong support system.
In contrast, people with anorexia have a surplus of dopamine- the neurotransmitter linked to motivation, reward, and memory- which replaces the surge of dopamine released by consuming food when hungry. Once again, the body’s natural incentive is to keep dopamine levels high as a response to lacking dopamine that usually happens when eating.
One should always keep in mind that biological abnormalities can ensue a difficult road to recovery in those who struggle with eating disorders. Therefore, sensitivity and awareness about other mental factors that lead to a certain eating disorder should continue.