When I was sixteen, I started to diet. My exercise habits increased in intensity, and as the weight melted away, friends at school complimented me. I felt a surge of control over my body and in my life that became addictive. Soon, I was 45 pounds less than my regular weight. I was anorexic.
My parents knew something was very wrong, but eating disorders were not well understood by many physicians in the 1980s. The years I spent struggling with anorexia nervosa had a profound impact on my physical and emotional health as a young adult. But, gladly, I was one of the lucky patients with an eating disorder who made a full recovery. One of my many goals in becoming a pediatrician was to help youth affected by this potentially deadly set of diseases.
Eating disorders can negatively impact every organ system in the human body. Malnutrition leads to shrinking of cardiac muscle, with loss of proper contractility and electrical signaling in the heart. Brain cells affected by the acids that a starving body uses as fuel do not function well, leading to changes in cognitive ability, thought processes and behavior. Bone-density decreases can lead to easy injury and fractures. Attempts by the body to conserve critical organ function leads to turning down, or off, of less vital organs such as ovaries and the thyroid gland. Cold intolerance, blue hands and feet, hair loss and skin deterioration are common.
Emotional changes evident during eating disorders can include depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, self-harming and suicidal tendencies.
The mainstay of therapy for eating disorders is proper medical management of the potentially life-threatening physical derangements of the disease, along with cognitive behavioral therapy to conquer the thought disorders suffered by the patient. Dietary programs to support healthy recovery must be tailored to each patient.
Recovery from an eating disorder requires a team approach. The team leader is always the patient, supported by a group of knowledgeable eating disorder experts to include a psychologist, dietician, physician and, potentially, a psychiatrist. Families need a great deal of support and education throughout the process of treatment for their child.
My anorexic years were among the darkest in my life. For the young people I meet with a new diagnosis of an eating disorder, one of the biggest reasons to engage in treatment, I guarantee them, is to escape that terrifying darkness they see around them.
The same personal intensity that allows an eating disorder to take hold of a person’s body and soul can become an individual’s savior. The first step is for your child to talk with someone trusted. Then, call us at Eugene Pediatrics. We are here to help you and your child every step of the way.