HOW EATING DISORDERS AFFECT THE MIND AND BODY

BY MICHELE PETERSON

The author is a recovering addict who wishes to eliminate the stigma surrounding people who struggle with addiction.

Eating disorders affect each individual differently, but they all carry similar symptoms and consequences. Starvation, purging, and relentless exercise are just a few of the behaviors a person suffering with an eating disorder might engage in, and they can lead to substance abuse, catastrophic weight loss, organ failure, respiratory and digestive issues, and even death. These life-altering disorders are not just a matter of lifestyle; they are actually a mental health issue and can be affected by environment and other factors, as well. This means that a person living with an eating disorder cannot control their behavior on their own, even if they want to stop.

The stigmas surrounding eating disorders make it difficult for many people to talk about. Friends and family may not understand what lies behind these behaviors, and the revelation that a loved one has bulimia or anorexia may cause friction and misunderstandings. It is important to remember that an individual who lives with an eating disorder cannot change their behavior simply because a loved one wants them to. Therapy or counseling is necessary, and often the individual will need assistance in getting physically healthy again. It will not be easy and it will take time, so loved ones will need to be patient and understanding. It might even be helpful for them to attend a counseling session or to accompany the individual to the doctor in order to get a full understanding of the situation.

There are many different types of eating disorders, but the most commonly known are bulimia and anorexia. With bulimia, the individual will usually eat normally but will purge afterward. Anorexia often involves starving oneself or limiting calories severely. In both cases, the individual may engage in a brutal exercise regime and be obsessed with calorie intake; they may have dramatic mood swings or engage in substance abuse, either to cope with their behavior or the physical pain, or to curb their appetite. Some of the consequences of living with an eating disorder include:

  • Hair loss
  • Issues with the esophagus or digestive tract
  • Mouth pain
  • Gum and teeth problems
  • Severe weight loss
  • Kidney issues
  • Growth of a fine, downy hair all over the body as it tries to compensate for the loss of mass and keep warm
  • Organ failure
  • Death

It is important for individuals living with an eating disorder to receive help as soon as possible, because the longer a person lives with it, the harder it is to change the behavior. The same is true with a person who is simultaneously living with a substance abuse problem. If you suspect that a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, do not be afraid to reach out to them. Let them know they are not alone and that, while you may not understand their thought process, you do not want them to continue their harmful behavior. Help them find a counselor or therapist and offer to accompany them to a meeting or consultation, as going alone can be scary.

Finally, remember to be patient. You may not understand what your loved one is going through and that is okay; there is only so much you can do yourself. Let them know you will listen if they need to talk and try to keep an open mind.