Anorexia Follows Intoxication, Addiction Model
> 10/4/2007 10:31:17 AM

Recent studies citing a similarity between the neural pleasure mechanisms stimulated by both compulsive starvation and the popular club drug ecstasy further the tendency to classify anorexia as an addiction - a compulsive dependence on the "highs" of punishing hunger disguised as personal discipline. Many anorexic patients thrive on the very misguided sense of accomplishment provided by a voluntary refusal to eat, and this psychological intoxication stems from a very real physical reaction in the brain. The irony of anorexia lies in the fact that its driving factor, a compulsive desire for control, does in fact denote an absolute lack of the same in the face of a debilitating affliction; discipline, in this case, can ultimately prove to be damaging in physical and psychological ways. By summoning the willpower to consistently refuse food or eat only negligable portions, victims do their bodies and minds no favors.

Anorexia's very serious implications are not subject to debate - the condition incurs more fatalities than any other mental illness, most often due to malnourishment and cardiovascular problems stemming from a lack of the physical and cognitive energies provided by nutritous food. These increasingly detailed clinical revelations will allow for more refined treatments, and many suggest that medications designed to treat various drug addictions may also prove successful for patients suffering from eating disorders. Refraining from stimuli (in this case, food) serves to provide its own "high," a chemical reaction following the same path as that which makes the euphoria of ecstasy so appealing to millions.

Beyond heightening physical sensations and notoriously leading users to drink inordinate amounts of water and other fluids, ecstasy quite effectively suppresses the appetite. Working from the fact that ecstasy and anorexia share this characteristic, French researchers deduced that the same reaction reduces appetite in both cases. Their research focused on a particular portion of the brain (the nucleus accumbens) that boasts a particularly high number of serotonin receptors, is known to regulate pleasure and rewards systems, and has figured as a central player in the chemical addiction field. By stimulating that portion of the brain in lab rats, they markedly reduced the rats' appetites and facilitated the release of a peptide called CART - a substance whose excessive presence has been noted among both anorexia patients and psychostimulant drug users. When injected with ecstasy, the rats who'd been engineered to lack the serotonin receptors at the center of this equation did not display evidence of reduced appetites, further implying that these receptors in the nucleus accumbens do, in fact, account for the appetite-suppressant qualities of ecstasy. Medications used to counter this effect in drug users may prove beneficial to anorexia patients as well.

While this particular discovery is new, the general concept is not - researchers searching for effective anorexia therapies in 2003 found success in an unlikely source: naltrexone, an opioid receptor antagonist most often prescribed to curb the physical cravings characterizing alcoholism and heroin addiction. When given the drug in addition to regular personal therapy, the majority of patients recovered their appetites to some degree and were able to better maintain a reasonable weight. Anorexia has also been linked to the CART peptide in the past. Knowledge of the neurology behind both anorexia and certain drugs of abuse remains limited, but starvation appears to release some of the same opioids as these illicit substances, and treating eating disorders by reducing the presence of naturally occurring appetite suppressants may be the most effective approach - combined, of course, with personal therapy in order to explore the very intimate components of the condition and the low self-esteem from which it often arises. Continued research will almost certainly make for much better forms of treatment in the near future, and this is an encouraging development, as our culture doesn't look to shy away from the worship of abnormally thin women any time soon.

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