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Starving your brain impedes its function. No, really.

Posted Sep 07 2008 8:37pm

Gee, I never would have guessed that starvation had an effect on the brain, as described in this article. But maybe I’m unfairly mocking the basic idea of this story because it’s the details that make this information interesting.

A recent study revealed cognitive impairment in patients with adolescent-onset anorexia. Possible cause: lack of estrogen and other hormones essential to optimal body function. The study found that patients who had irregular or absent menses had greater changes in their actual brain structure and cognitive function. The longer the irregularity or absence of menses, the more drastic the change in comparison to a healthy subject.

With starvation comes a number of adaptations the body makes in an attempt to preserve itself, such as lanugo and a decreased metabolism. Decreased hormone levels are also a part of this change, sometimes leading to the absence of menstruation in females. That would explain the change in brain structure - with low levels of estrogen, the brain is essentially turning off the reproductive system until the body starts receiving enough nutrition to potentially support another life. Since it can’t support the life that it’s got right now, it’s going to keep those estrogen levels low and reroute the energy that would’ve been used in the reproductive system to the more vial organs like the heart and lungs. The brain is rerouting its neurological structure just to keep itself and the rest of the body alive.

In other anorexic females, the body and brain stubbornly adapt to the lowered levels of hormones it has available. They make the most of what they have. This may lead to irregular menses, lighter menses, or no change in menses whatsoever. Still, the brain must adapt to these changes, explaining the change of brain structure in that instance. It makes sense.

The latter is what happened to me in my years as a purging anoretic. I never once lost my period. At the time, it really pissed me off because it meant I wasn’t “sick enough.” What I didn’t know at the time was that cessation of menstruation doesn’t happen to all women who have anorexia. This is especially common when the body is gradually driven into a state of starvation. Again, this was the case for me. This gave my body time to adapt to my changes in food intake as it became less and less. My body fought with a venegance to keep itself working normally despite what I was doing to it.

It wasn’t until after my eating disorder that I realized how much of a price I was paying for making my body work that hard. Proof of my impaired cognition lies in my memory — it sucks. I don’t remember much from my heavily disordered years (2001-2005) and it didn’t improve much in the years since. Entire years have gone by as a blur. I’ve taken to journaling so I won’t forget so many of the things I used to remember effortlessly. I wish I would have started sooner. I’ve lost so much to this disorder, one of the most painful things being the wonderful memories of times past that I’ll never have again. I’m genuinely scared for how my brain will function as I age. Will I develop Alzheimer’s at an alarmingly early age, or will I get lucky and not see any change for decades because of steady nutritional intake? I can only hope for the latter.

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