how anorexia impacts cognitive functions

Eating disorders are complex and the impact of anorexia nervosa on our body is immense. Eating disorders have complex causes as well as complex perpetuating factors. Especially in anorexia nervosa, the growth factor BDNF plays an important role in relation to cognitive abilities. So, let´s have a look on how anorexia impacts cognitive functions. I will try to explain everything in as simple language as possible without leaving out important details. But enough ramblings at the beginning – let’s dive into the world of neuropsychology.

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the basics: growth factor BDNF

BDNF stands for “brain derived neurotropic factor” and refers to a protein that affects the human organism in many ways. An important task is the preservation of already existing neurons (nerve cells) and synapses (connections between the nerve cells). Furthermore, BDNF stimulates the growth and development of new nerve cells, neural pathways (many connected neurons that form a network/coherence and perform a specific function) and synapses.

In particular, the BDNF can be found in brain areas responsible for abstract thinking, logical reasoning, organizational thinking and other memory functions, as well as sleep and appetite. (For those who are more familiar with the brain: the forebrain, hippocampus, and cerebral cortex).

Auswirkungen von Anorexia auf kognitive Funktionen how anorexia impacts cognitive functions

What impacts the brain derived neurotropic factor?

  • Long-term stress (more specifically, a permanently elevated glucocorticoid concentration, which is usually present in patients with anorexia nervosa) impairs the production of BDNF (especially in the hippocampus). Chronic stress therefore leads to reduced stress resistance and difficulties in adapting to change.
  • Social isolation not only lowers the BDNF factor, but also increases the concentration of stress hormones (cortisol) in the blood, which in turn has a negative impact on BDNF.
  • Genetic differences: People with a genetically caused lower concentration of BDNF are more vulnerable/prone to certain disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, depression, sleep disorders, … But vulnerability alone does not trigger a disorder, but can be one of many factors be considered

how an eating disorder changes the way you think

how anorexia impacts cognitive functions

Studies have shown that patients with anorexia nervosa have a lower concentration of BDNF than comparable healthy controls. Underactive BDNF can lead to depression, impaired reasoning and memory, brain fog (the inability to think clearly), and emotional dysregulation.

The eating disorder changes how your brain works, how information from the environment and about your own body is perceived and interpreted, and how you react to it. That’s exactly why it’s so difficult to admit the illness and really want to start and follow the healing path.

If you wait until you are ready for recovery, then it will almost certainly be too late for you at some point. This is the ugly and harsh truth. Don’t let the eating disorder fool you. The best time to recover is now!

more than just a number on the scale...

Studies have also shown that the growth factor can be increased again with weight gain. Most of the damage to the brain is repaired and cognitive abilities are restored. So forget the number on the scale. It’s not just about the weight.

Reaching your set point weight also means restoring cognitive abilities, being able to think clearly and rationally, being able to laugh with friends again, being able to get up refreshed in the morning, feeling less stressed and being more resilient to stress in general. It’s fair to say that in your case, gaining weight will make life worth living again!

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