Vail health: Bulimia and the brain
VAIL – Don’t put your kid on a diet, because diets don’t work, says Dr. Kenneth Weiner, an expert in eating disorders and brain development.Within three years, 90 percent of people weigh more than they did before the diet. The other 10 percent have built lifestyle changes into their lives, Weiner said.Weiner is co-founder, CEO and chief medical officer of the Eating Recovery Center in Denver and has been treating eating disorders for more than 25 years. He talked to Colorado School Counselors Association’s annual conference at the Vail Cascade Resort & Spa on Friday.To help adolescents avoid eating disorders, concentrate on who they are and not what they are, what’s on the inside rather than what’s on the outside, he said.”We live in an obese society and childhood obesity is going to break the healthcare bank. My patients are the collateral damage,” Weiner said.
Eating disorders stem from nurture more than nature, he said, and so many things can feed that beast: Trauma, certain interests and hobbies, modeling, dancing, swimming, violence, culture, media.”For many people with an eating disorder, it’s preceded by some sort of trauma,” Weiner said.Still, genetics play a role.Between 40 to 50 percent of the risk is genetic. Fifty to 60 percent is psychosocial. If her mother has it, a girl is 12 times more likely.It’s as inheritable as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, Weiner said, and it’s treatable.He said 85 percent of people with eating disorders get better within 7-10 years, Weiner said.
Brain development is part of the reason.”I was taught in medical school that you’re born with a certain number of brain cells and that they begin to die the second you’re born. We now know that’s not true,” he said.Brain cells and nerve endings continue to develop and die off. Pruning, it’s called.If you’re not using tracks with any consistency, the brain eliminate those tracks.By the third trimester before you’re even born, your brain begins to prune non-essential brain cells.Those that are used become established. The others go away.”It’s a survival of the fittest of the neurons. If they’re being used, they survive. If they’re not, they go away. It’s a little scary when you think about what teenagers are doing 75 percent of the time,” Weiner said.Between the ages of 6-12, girls’ brains are about a year to a year and half ahead of boys in brain development. But it doesn’t last. By their early teens they’re about equal, Weiner said.Your brain goes faster until you’re about 25, then it begins to slow. That’s why it’s easier to learn things when you’re young, and becomes more difficult as you age, Weiner said.It finishes developing around 25. Insurance companies have known this forever, as have car rental agencies. That’s why they won’t rent to people less than 25 years old, Weiner pointed out.
The prefrontal cortex is the CEO of the brain. You use it for thought and the part you need the most as an adult – planning, prioritizing, organizing thoughts and suppressing impulses. Teen brains don’t do that yet. That’s why teens tend to have so much trouble, Weiner said.”Adolescents are actively looking for experiences to create intense feelings,” Weiner said. “They experience the need for emotional speed, while they have not fully developed their brains.”They cannot explain how they’re feeling and tend to physically act out what they cannot express, Weiner said.”They may see anger or hostility where it does not exist. That’s why they’ll sometimes come home and say their English teacher hates them,” Weiner said.Then there’s the group effect on behavior and risk taking.Take traffic lights. Teens were challenged whether to run a yellow light. When they’re alone they’re just as likely as adults to make a safe stop. When they’re with other teens they hit the gas.The concept of adolescence and maturation wasn’t around until the industrial revolution. Before that, you went straight from childhood to adulthood. If you were old enough to bear children, hunt or work, you were considered an adult.Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.