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Other Eating Disorder Maintaining Factors

Bridget Engel, Psy.D., edited by Kathryn Patricelli, MA

Peer pressure

group of teens texting Teens and young women experience a lot of pressure from their peers to be thin and to stay thin. One source of this pressure is "thinspiration" websites and discussion groups that have been created on the Internet by people who support and promote eating disorders. These sites offer tips and tricks on how to lose weight, start vomiting, what foods purge the easiest, and how to avoid detection. They also include inspiring photos, quotes and message boards. Because people are usually anonymous on these sites, it provides support, friendship, and justification for troubled thinking or behavior. Treatment professionals and other experts are concerned that these pro eating disorder websites generate a subculture that potentially helps to spread dangerous and unhealthy eating behaviors.

Other Maintaining Factors

Biological factors that cause eating disorders often keep them going as well. As mentioned previously, researchers suspect that body systems can help to maintain destructive behaviors. Malnutrition and unhealthy eating patterns change the level of chemicals that transmit messages in the brain, including serotonin. Some people with anorexia have abnormally high levels of serotonin in parts of the brain involved in creating and maintaining anxiety and repeated unwanted thoughts. For these people, not eating decreases levels of serotonin, which in turn reduces anxiety. Because they now feel less anxious, their eating restriction behavior is reinforced.

In contrast, those with bulimia often show increased serotonin levels in the brain for short periods of time when they binge. This seems to decrease symptoms of depression that are caused by inadequate levels of brain chemicals. Binging, therefore, temporarily lowers symptoms of depression. However, when serotonin overloads the brain after a large carbohydrate binge, anxiety, irritability, and agitation increase. These can be early feelings that lead to purging behaviors.

Electrolytes are naturally occurring chemicals in the blood that conduct electricity. They also play a key role in continuing eating disorder behaviors. Starving the body and not getting the right vitamin and minerals causes changes in electrolyte levels This then causes confusion and unclear thinking. Researchers believe this maintains eating disorder behaviors because people then continue to make poor decisions about eating and their bodies.