U highlights studies to raise eating disorders awareness

Dylan Thomas

This week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and the University is taking the opportunity to highlight several research programs offering free treatment to people with eating disorders.

New and ongoing University research programs are recruiting participants for studies testing the symptoms and effects of eating disorders, as well as treatments.

Scott Crow, a University psychiatry professor, said college years are a peak period for developing eating disorders, which affect mostly women.

Boyd Hartman, a University psychiatry professor, said all eating disorders can have serious physical and emotional effects. University research has shown that anorexia has a 12 percent fatality rate – the highest for any mental illness.

The behavior associated with eating disorders can also cause a person to become withdrawn or lead to depression, Hartman said.

The University’s ongoing eating disorder studies are conducted by the Eating Disorder Research Group and the Neuroscience Research Group, which are both part of the University’s psychiatry department.

University researchers are focusing on three eating disorders – anorexia, bulimia and binge eating.

Anorexia is a disorder in which people afraid of being overweight severely limit their calorie intake. Anorexics often see themselves as overweight even when they are not.

Those with bulimia compulsively eat large amounts of food and then vomit, use laxatives, exercise vigorously or take other steps to counteract the binging.

Binge eating disorder usually occurs in people who are overweight. Like bulimics, they experience a compulsion to binge, and they vomit or use laxatives as a bulimic would.

Crow said the disorders might be linked because they share some common symptoms. Also, a person with one disorder might develop another.

“They’re not exactly the same thing, probably, but they’re close,” he said.

Three of the University’s ongoing eating disorder studies are free and open to students, Crow said.

The first tests bulimia treatments. The second looks at group therapy’s effectiveness to treat binge eating disorder. The third enrolls those with bulimia-type symptoms who do not qualify for one of the other studies.

Roots of a disorder

Crow said it is “clearly true” there are both physiological and psychological factors involved in eating disorders.

“When people talk about a psychological root cause, usually it has something to do with societal pressures about thinness and dieting and weight, and I think those are actually quite important,” Crow said.

However, he said, “everyone on campus” is exposed to the same pressures, while only a small number develop eating disorders. He said this could be evidence of a biological or genetic component leading some to develop eating disorders.

Hartman and University psychiatry professor Patricia Faris are conducting a study of the interaction between psychological and physiological factors in bulimia.

Faris, the study’s principal author, said many people do not understand that while bulimics start by forcing themselves to vomit, the behavior eventually is uncontrollable.

This is related to a body process that regulates short-term hunger and fullness.

When a person eats, the stomach signals the brain that food is causing the stomach to expand. The brain signals back, telling the stomach muscles to relax to accommodate the food. Regularly binging and vomiting disrupts this system.

Based on this knowledge, Faris and Hartman are giving bulimics a drug normally used to treat chemotherapy-induced nausea, hoping to regulate the process. For some, it has a quick and positive effect on their disorder.

Hartman said the research is helping those who treat eating disorders look at them differently.

“This concept, that there is something physiologically wrong that needs to be addressed Ö is what we’re really trying to show,” Hartman said.

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