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"The effects of undernutrition..."

Posted Dec 18 2009 6:19pm
One of the most profound things I learned in treatment for anorexia was how much the symptoms of my eating disorder (obsession with food, increased anxiety and insomnia, agitation, hyperactivity) were as much symptoms of starvation as they were symptoms of anorexia. Not that this made eating any easier--it didn't--but it helped put a context to all of the frightening thoughts and compulsions I was having. Eating seemed to make them worse, but only after a while did eating make them somewhat better.
Undernutrition may actually be at the core of many of the traits and symptoms researchers initially thought were caused by anorexia. Many people with anorexia are probably more obsessive, anxious, and perfectionistic than average; since these traits existed before the eating disorder, they aren't caused by undernutrition, but they sure can be exaggerated. Even just a quick read of Keys' starvation study indicates that many of the behavior changes brought about by semi-starvation can be significant. Many brain imaging studies of anorexia are performed after weight restoration and a period of recovery and normal eating because starvation has such profound effects on the brain.

There have been numerous studies that have reported on psychological changes that occur during refeeding (Konrad et al 2007), but two interesting studies appeared within the past week that seemed to emphasize the role of refeeding in the psychological recovery from EDs.

The first article was from the French journal Encephale, which looked at the relationship between social phobia, anorexia, and the stage of treatment (Coulon, Jeammet, and Godart, 2009). Because the journal is in French, I'm going to have to stick with the abstract, but the results were still interesting. Social phobia has been loosely associated with AN, but the researchers were trying to figure out whether the social phobia might be a by-product of malnutrition rather than an actual trait of the anorexia sufferer. In this sense, it's kind of the proverbial chicken-and-egg question: which came first, the undernutrition or the symptoms of the eating disorder?

And what did the researchers say about how stage of treatment in anorexia affected social phobia? They found a correlation between social phobia and symptoms of AN as well as "total clinical picture" of the patient, but no relationship between social phobia and nutritional status (as measured by BMI). The researchers concluded that "We therefore feel that a diagnosis of social phobia can only be confirmed after an acute state of AN, thus allowing for preferential treatments. Other studies must be conducted in order to continue to explore the links between social phobia and AN."

This doesn't preclude the pre-illness onset of social phobia--in fact, a 2004 study found that approximately one in five ED sufferers met the diagnostic criteria for social phobia before the onset of their disorder (Kaye et al, 2004). However, due to the eating disorder, social phobia can appear in a person who had no previous symptoms of the disorder. So is that social phobia a true, independent disorder, or is it related to undernutrition? This study says that social phobia might be related to undernutrition, but we don't know for sure yet.

The second study looked at the hypothesized relationship between anorexia and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs; Time Magazine had a good article earlier this year on the issue that I blogged about here). Specifically, the study looked at the difficulties people with AN have with respect to the emotional Theory of Mind (eToM), with understanding and interpreting others' emotions (Oldershaw et al, 2009). People with ASDs often have difficulty understanding other people's emotions, and the fact that AN sufferers also had difficulty with this seemed to be a neurological link between the two disorders.

The researchers compared a group of currently ill AN patients with both recovered AN patients and healthy controls, and found that the emotional deficits seen in acutely ill AN patients had essentially disappeared in the recovered AN patients. Furthermore, there were few differences in emotional tasks in recovered AN patients and healthy controls, which indicates that the emotional deficits are more related to the current state of undernutrition than they are a person's temperament.

Conclude the researchers:

These findings indicate almost complete normalization of emotion recognition ability as well as the restoration of eToM in recovered patients, despite the observation of difficulties in both domains in currently ill patients. Findings suggest that similarities between AN and ASD in poor eToM are restricted to the currently ill AN state and such difficulties in AN may be a factor of starvation.

However, other similarities between AN and ASDs remain, such as difficulties with set-shifting and impaired central coherence (i.e., you can't see the forest because of the trees) that seem to extend long beyond recovery. That, however, is its own blog post that will hopefully be up soon.
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