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A massive breakthrough in our understanding of anorexia nervosa

For decades, therapists, doctors and lay people alike have believed that eating disorders result from emotional issues linked to body image and low self-esteem. Now, a newly published study has affirmed what we in the eating disorder recovery field have long suspected: the roots of anorexia nervosa are actually linked to the genes that regulate human metabolism and neurochemistry.

We have long said, “Genes load the gun and experience pulls the trigger.” This new research adds more evidence and specificity to the genetic underpinnings of what we now know to be a brain disease, with profound impact on eating behavior and body perception.

The study, which was published last month, found 8 new genetic markers for anorexia, suggesting that we need to rethink the way we view and treat the disorder that affects up to 2 percent of women and 0.3 percent of men worldwide. The findings are based on a scientific study of more than 17,000 patients living with anorexia – the largest study of its kind ever conducted.

“Now we know that (anorexia is) a complex mixture of aspects from the body and mind,” says study co-author Janet Treasure, a psychiatrist at King’s College London.

How this research helps us see anorexia more objectively

Until fairly recently, anorexia has been seen mainly as a psychological disorder. With advances in both basic and clinical research, the field has moved closer to viewing these potentially fatal illnesses as medical illnesses, in part because of the dramatic impact that eating disorders can have on physical health.

Many people with anorexia suffer from repeated episodes of extreme weight loss, even after they have undergone extensive treatment that helps restore them to a normal weight while in controlled settings. Over the past 20 years, we have seen few new interventions for the unremitting illness that involves frequent relapses – a condition so deadly it has the highest early mortality of any of the so-called mental illnesses. (I refer to them in this way because in my view, they are all organic diseases that are NOT “all in the patient’s mind.”)

Realizing that genetics may drive the symptoms of anorexia places these symptoms – and, in fact, the illness itself – in a new light for many patients. Clearly, behaviors and beliefs are only part of the story. The key takeaways from the study affirm that:

  • Anorexia is likely to be linked to the body’s inherited ability to metabolize sugars and fats.
  • Genetic differences in people with anorexia may mute body signals that would normally stimulate appetite during a period of extreme weight loss.
  • Anorexia has been linked with higher levels of physical activity.
  • People living with anorexia share genetic traits with people who have other mental health conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, major depressive disorder and schizophrenia.

Greater compassion and support for those facing anorexia

It may be years before we know how to use these genetic differences to develop new treatments focused on the biology that regulates development and recovery from anorexia. We may someday be able to re-balance the body’s metabolic responses, helping to dramatically improve outcomes for those facing the disease.

But for now, the study has immediate impact on the terrible stigma that surrounds eating disorders, addiction and other mental illnesses. As a medical professional who has recovered from anorexia herself, I am closely attuned to the negative attitudes about mental illness that pervade society and even the professional community.

Too many of us blame the patient and blame the family when treatments fail to arrest a mental illness such as anorexia. This new research helps move the needle where it needs to be, taking blame and shame away from a deadly disease that patients and families didn’t choose or ask for.

Knowing that anorexia has biological origins, with genes linked to brain function and metabolism, helps us fight these unfounded beliefs. It also helps us as professionals and family members to separate the disease from the person. With the new findings in mind, we can have greater compassion for people suffering from anorexia, remembering that they are struggling with a disease that overtakes the brain – which is, after all, the organ we depend on to perceive reality, make decisions, and execute behaviors, day in and day out.

If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, we are ready to help you right now. Get in touch with us today to find caring, effective treatment for anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, binge eating or any related issue.


Healthy body, healthy mind: the role of nutrition in recovery

Healthy eating gives our bodies and brains the support they need to carry us through life’s challenges. But for people dealing with a mental health condition, getting the right nutrition can be a real roadblock in the journey to wellness.

At SunCloud Health, we work with many people who need to change the way they eat in order to get their lives back on track. For example, people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol need help rebuilding self-care habits, including nutrition. Those who suffer from depression and other mood disorders also benefit from learning about the gut-brain connection and the nutrients that support mood stability.

People who come to us for help with eating disorders need caring, specialized, individualized support in healing their relationship with food. Our dietitian therapists  work closely with them to deal with a range of issues that are crucial for their recovery.

For those with eating disorders, the road to balanced nutrition isn’t easy

Many people with eating disorders spend a substantial amount of time thinking about food. Many know more about nutrition than just about anyone because they’ve spent so much time studying the calorie and nutrition content of foods and how the body processes these. Some have developed fears of specific foods, refusing to eat them at all – denying themselves of nutrients needed to keep their brains and other internal organs functioning properly.

When we work with people who are recovering from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, orthorexia and other eating disorders, we focus on healing attitudes and building new habits which serve to normalize one’s relationship with food and body.

Many people with eating disorders have distorted, rigid ideas about what’s healthy when it comes to food, our bodies and exercise. A healthy relationship with food is flexible, including choices from all different food groups. This definition of healthy can include processed foods, high-fat foods and high-sugar foods consumed in moderation.

A healthy relationship with food also includes an active connection with self, intuition, tastes and desires. A healthy relationship with body includes acceptance and belief in weight diversity. A healthy relationship with exercise means being active on a regular basis, engaging in pleasurable movement but without rigid or compulsive thinking or action.

A majority of us – even those of us who don’t suffer from clinical eating disorders – could use help overcoming old, sick, culturally supported beliefs that don’t serve us well. We need to find satisfying new ways to nourish ourselves at the body, mind and soul level.

Embracing good nutrition, one bite at a time

If you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, here are 4 crucial things we want you to know.

  1. Food freedom is possible. Thoughts of food don’t have to control your life anymore. With help, you can learn to choose foods and eating behaviors which will sustainably nourish your body and support your total health.
  2. You can transform the way you see your body. We provide a safe space where you can talk about your self-image, and re-experience who you are and how you see yourself. Understanding the biological, psychological, social, and spiritual roots of your negative beliefs about your body began is the first step in developing a more accurate and loving image of yourself that supports your recovery.
  3. Change is possible for you, too — replacing behaviors rooted in fear and isolation with powerful new behaviors rooted in community, love and acceptance. With time, support and practice, you can learn to eat in nourishing rather than self-abusive ways. As your skill level grows, you will find yourself eating comfortably in social settings, choosing foods from grocery stores and restaurants that support your overall health and learning to prepare flavorful meals you will savor and enjoy as an act of responsible self-care. We offer supported meals and snacks, as well as experiential outings, to help you along the road to change. For people in recovery from eating disorders, food is medicine – and we will empower you every step of the way.
  4. You are not alone. At SunCloud Health, we understand that your struggles aren’t simply about food. Many people with eating disorders have suffered significant emotional or physical trauma that must be healed. We see you as a whole person and we are here to treat the full spectrum of challenges you may be facing.

If you need help healing your relationship with food, we are here for you. Call 844-202-4230 or email us here.

A New Form of Bulimia: Pump Eliminates Need to Purge

Decades ago, patients had their mouths literally wired shut. Then came the era of the balloon inserted and inflated in the stomach to mimic the sensation of fullness. Then we moved into radical surgery that rerouted the gut altogether. The most recent attempt to achieve weight loss is the lap band, considered less invasive and still far short of a fail-proof miracle cure for most people.

Never let it be said that companies are asleep at the wheel when it comes to creating new, and ever more bizarre, devices to “help” the morbidly obese.

Acquiring rapid approval from the Food and Drug Administration this week, the AspireAssist is being touted as the new solution for those who have failed to lose weight. After all, it is minimally-invasive, reversible; it’s a simple procedure that offers quick recovery; it has proven results in clinical trials and is affordable. How great is that?

Now, let’s talk about what is actually true. This is a pump that allows people to consume food, and then mere minutes later drain it from their stomachs straight into the toilet. Many experts are calling it a bulimia-assist device. And well they should. The individual gets the same result without having to engage in that pesky, far more dangerous act of vomiting.

The makers of the device also tout that another “real benefit” of it is that people get to engage in “a healthy, normal lifestyle.” It seems they have skipped over the part about having to go to the bathroom after every meal and dump out undigested food from the stomach directly into the toilet.

The evacuation takes from five to ten minutes, should be executed after every large meal, and can “easily” be accomplished in a public restroom.

There is nothing normal about this.

In a statement, the FDA cautions that the device should not be used by those with eating disorders. Now what does this organization in its infinite wisdom think that, at the very least, a sizeable minority of those with severe obesity are struggling with? Cancer?

Many of those whose weight would classify them as obese have a very real eating disorder – most will go undiagnosed and untreated. These are exactly the people who will go to great lengths to get such a device installed. A quick fix; it’s every addict’s dream, indeed, every American’s dream.

The only thing this company is doing right is advocating lifestyle counseling while using this product. Imagine what results we would see if we offered ongoing individual therapy, lifestyle counseling provided by nutrition and exercise specialists and lifelong supportive group therapy without the “purge device.”

What does it say about our country’s obsession with thinness and its widespread disdain for people of size that the FDA so rapidly approved this device, essentially a bulimia-assist product for the “treatment” of those classified as obese based on their BMI?

Our healthcare system is short-sighted, symptom-focused and very broken. When we start to understand people first and foremost as human beings and view their “symptoms” in that context, perhaps we will deliver care to people in ways that enhance their health (physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual) sustainably. And, at a fraction of the cost that we are currently dumping down the toilet due to our broken system.


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