Many Americans today are struggling with the obesity epidemic and many have turned toward exercise as a means to lose weight and stay healthy. However, exercise is not all sunshine and rainbows. Too much exercise can be a bad thing and can even be related to disorders like bulimia and anorexia nervosa. Exercise is stress on the body. Muscles are torn and broken down and calories are burned. However, if the body is not given a chance to recover, overtime it can have detrimental effects.
Disorders like bulimia and anorexia nervosa are characterized by restrictions on how the individual eats in order to be skinny or look a certain way. Halmi (2002) claims that individuals suffering from anorexia nervosa suffer from dysfunctional growth hormone secretion. This is most likely caused by the starving state. This is not the only dysfunction present in these disorders. Many other brain areas and neurotransmitters are affected by these disorders. For instance, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) which is the brain’s self control center may work in overtime to stop these individuals from eating and the Insula may not correctly identify sweets. These dysfunctions have an affect on both the body and behavior.
For bulimia especially, the disorder is characterized by episodes of bingeing and purging. On specific case uses exercise as a means to purge oneself. The link below tells the story of one such individual who struggled with exercise bulimia.
Exercise does stimulate endorphins as well as promote many healthy rhythms in the brain, but as stated above, it can do serious damage if the body does not get a chance to rest. In Robin’s case, her bones had weakened to the state of a 65 year-old female and she suffered from osteoporosis. So if all this exercise was causing all this damage, why did she continue to do it? Part of the answer lies in the the dopamine system and reward and punishment. For Robin, and other’s suffering with exercise bulimia, both the pleasure of working out, and the pleasure seeing their ideal self due to the purging stimulated the dopaminergic reward system. Once engrained, it can be very difficult to stop. Furthermore, the dysfunction of other neurotransmitters and neuropeptide pathways do not help intervention. This disorder, and disorders like it can be very challenging to break. For exercise bulimia, it can be very hard from friends and family to realize that what once was a healthy habit, has become a chronic disorder.
I had a friend who I believe suffered from this condition. Contrary to what most people would think, my friend was a guy and a excellent athlete. However, he was obsessed with his body and with working out. Where other people praised him for his athletic accomplishments, some of my teammates and I saw more of an ugly side to his condition. I am writing this post not only to highlight a disorder and how it is related to the brain, but to remind readers that not everything is always what it seems. Whether it be in the brain, or be a behavior, sometimes there is such thing as too much of a good thing.
Halmi, K. A. (2002). Physiology of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Eating disorders and obesity: A comprehensive handbook, 267-271.
Rosen, M. (2013). The Anorexic Brain:neuroimaging improves understanding of eating disorder . Science News.