Is it a Mental Illness

Is Anorexia a Mental Illness

There seems to be much debate in the eating disorder community over whether anorexia is an addiction or a mental illness. Anorexia is a confusing phenomenon of which the possible causes are many and, therefore, its origins are not fully understood yet in the medical community.

When faced with uncertainty, let’s start with what we know. We know that an addiction is an uncontrollable urge to repeat a behavior despite negative consequences that results in long-term changes in brain chemistry. We also know that a mental illness is a psychiatric disorder that impairs an individual’s normal cognitive, emotional and behavioral functioning. In addition, both addiction and mental illness arise from multiple social, psychological, biochemical, genetic and traumatic causative factors.

What Is It?

anorexiaIn order to understand if anorexia is a mental illness or an addiction, we must explore what defines the disease. On the outside, anorexia is a disorder that appears to be very simply about a person’s belief that they are fat. People who develop anorexia usually start out dieting to lose weight. However, over time their successful weight loss comes to represent a sign of control that they may feel is missing in other areas of their life. With each pound lost, the individual feels a mastery over his or her body.

The behaviors of an anorexic become obsessive over time with dangerously reduced caloric intake, excessive exercising, and abuse of diet pills, diuretics and laxatives to further reduce their weight. With anorexia, people push themselves to a point of starvation with potential lethal consequences in an attempt to feel control over their body and life. This cycle becomes uncontrollable much in the same way an addiction is a compulsion.

From our understanding of addiction and mental illness, it would seem that anorexia has components of both. Anorexia, like mental illness, seems to alter healthy cognitive, emotional and behavioral functioning. Nevertheless, like in the definition of addiction, anorexia causes an uncontrollable compulsion to continually starve oneself despite the consequences of poor health and the threat of a potential lethal outcome.  The unanswered piece of information in this puzzle is: does anorexia affect brain chemistry like an addiction, and if so, how?

New Study Shows How Anorexia Affects Brain Chemistry

A chemical in the brain called serotonin has long been believed by scientists to play a role in anorexia by changing the appetite and influencing obsessive behaviors as well as an individual’s ability to control their impulses. At the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, they decided to study serotonin and its relation with anorexia in a little more depth.

The researchers compared the serotonin activity in women with restricting-type anorexia, bulimia-type anorexia and women who have never had an eating disorder. They found that women who have anorexia have alterations in their serotonin activity that cause anxiety. What they were unable to tell from their research was if the change in brain chemistry predated the onset of their anorexia or if it was a result of damage done by lack of nutrition from the disorder.

In general, addictions cause a change in brain chemistry over time, and mental illness is a result of abnormal brain chemistry. To know for sure whether altered serotonin levels cause anorexia or are a direct result from the disorder is a question that is difficult to answer. This is because you would need to study someone’s brain before the development of the disease and then again after they have had anorexia, but predicting who will develop the disease is next to impossible.

Consequently, much more information needs to be analyzed in order to answer whether anorexia is definitively an addiction or a mental illness. For now, we’ll have to be satisfied with the understanding that the disorder has components of both issues.

Risk Factors

Although we can’t predict who will develop anorexia, there are a variety of factors that predispose a person to developing the disorder. Some of the risk factors include the following information:

  • Gender. Females develop the disorder far more often than males.
  • Age. Teenagers are the most affected population.
  • Personality characteristics. The presence of perfectionist tendencies increases the risk of developing eating disorders.
  • Personality disorder diagnoses.
  • Emotional disorder diagnoses.
  • Genetics. Family history of anorexia increases the chances that descendents will develop the problem.
  • Stress. Major life changes can play a part in the development of anorexia.
  • Athletic pressure. Athletes who feel pressured to control their weight may feel that they need to do so through anorexic behavior.

Further Information

If you feel that you or someone you know needs additional information to understand addictions and anorexia, contact us today. We can answer your questions and connect you with high-quality addiction and anorexia treatment programs.