Dr. Stephen A. Wonderlich, a 1978 Concordia graduate, spoke at the inaugural Nornes Lectureship in Neuroscience to address the link between emotions and bulimia nervosa.
Wonderlich is a professor and associate chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, as well as the chair of Eating Disorders at Sanford Health and co-director of the Eating Disorder and Weight Management Center. He is also the director of clinical research at the Neuropsychiatric Research Institute in Fargo.
Personally, I am not an expert on the topic of eating disorders. I haven’t had any direct relationships with individuals dealing with eating disorders and have not done any research into them, but I found this lecture to be very enlightening. Here are 5 things I didn’t know prior to attending:
Eating disorders exist to help individuals regulate their emotions.
Various eating disorders (starvation, binging, purging) are actions that are motivated by emotion. People constantly are regulating their emotions (influencing which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience or express them). In a person with an eating disorder, the disorder somehow manages and regulates their internal emotional state instead of normal emotional regulation methods.
Individuals with bulimia nervosa tend to come from Western industrialized cultures that are highly focused on appearances.
Individuals with eating disorders are very concerned about their appearance and have low self-esteem. It only follows that a higher number of individuals with bulimia nervosa would come from a culture like ours that is so focused on outward appearances.
Individuals with bulimia nervosa show the most activity in their brain’s reward center when shown pictures of food if they are unhappy.
During a study, the brain activity of the reward system was observed in an fMRI scanner when shown a picture of a milkshake. The anticipation of a reward of food lights up the reward system of the brain. For individuals with bulimia, only if they were unhappy would their reward center light up in anticipation. Food in this case makes a the individual happy, changing from a negative to a positive emotional state.
Fantasizing about binging produces a rewarding feeling.
In another study, individuals with bulimia were asked to plan their next binge episode. The brain activity before and after the task was measured. Merely fantasizing about binging produced a reward response in the brain, causing the reward center to light up on an fMRI.
Guilt and shame are emotions that predict bulimic behaviors the most.
There is a proven functional relationship between emotion and eating disorders. Bulimic behaviors can actually be triggered by specific emotional states. In fact, guilt and shame predicted bulimic behaviors the most during studies. Also, in the hours preceding a binge episode, there are increasingly negative emotions observed in a bulimic individual.
Lily Erdal ’18 is a pre-med student and member of The Concordia Choir.