Walden Conference Finds Vitamins, Exercise May Help Prevent, Treat Eating Disorders

Treatment of eating disorders is increasingly focusing on the brain, which can be “rewired” with a combination of vitamins, exercise and other therapies, according to four leading experts who spoke Thursday at a day-long conference at Bentley University sponsored by the Walden Center for Education and Research.

“Advances in the Treatment of Eating Disorders: Integrating Research with Clinical Practice,” provided an overview of how the brain reacts to trauma, the benefits of a healthy diet and exercise, and other steps that can be taken to prevent or treat not only eating disorders, but other mental and physical illnesses.

James M. Greenblatt, M.D., chief medical officer at Walden Behavioral Care in Waltham, said that rather than react to symptoms of illness, an integrative approach that addresses causes of eating disorders is more effective.

During his presentation, “Overcoming Roadblocks to Change: Integrative Strategies for Hope and Recovery,” he said that while genetics and other factors affect a person’s mental health, dietary choices are also important, because they affect “neurotransmitter synthesis” and how the brain works. He explained that a shortage of certain vitamins and minerals, such as lithium, can make a person susceptible to an eating disorder.

Lithium, a trace mineral that is present in food and water, plays an important role in brain function. Research shows that, in low doses, lithium can improve mood and prevent cognitive decline by supporting neurotransmission and brain signaling pathways.

While noting that our “biochemical individuality” affects how a person will react to treatment, Dr. Greenblatt cited studies that show a significant decrease in suicide among individuals treated with lithium.

In one case, for example, the rate of suicides and attempts among bipolar patients decreased nearly seven-fold with long-term lithium treatment—but it increased by a factor of 14 when lithium was discontinued.

The C.A.R.E. Approach

During “Four Ways to Click: Rewire Your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships,” Amy Banks, M.D. explained that individuals with eating disorders and other issues develop unhealthy behavior in an effort to stimulate dopamine, which causes pleasure. Dr. Banks is the director of advanced training and a senior research scientist at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute and The Wellesley Centers for Women.

Positive relationships can also stimulate dopamine, according to Dr. Banks, who said they can be developed using her C.A.R.E. approach. “C” is for “calm,” which results from relationships that foster personal growth. “A” for “acceptance” comes from a sense of belonging. “R” for “resonance” reflects the ability to accurately read the actions, intentions and feelings of others and to feel a resonance with them, and “E” for “energy” reflects the degree to which dopamine stimulation is attached to a healthy relationship.

John J. Ratey, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, talked about how play and exercise help develop not only a person’s body, but the mind as well.

During “Exercise as a Tool, or Not, For Eating Disorders,” he noted that more than 1,600 scientific papers have shown that exercise improves the brain, prevents cognitive decline, reduces the threat of Alzheimer’s disease, improves test scores among all ages and improves a person’s mood, energy level and motivation.

Conversely, he said, “There is no anti-brain environment worse than the classroom and cubicle.”

Exercise produces brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which Dr. Ratey calls, “the mother of all brain growth factors.” Low BDNF has been linked to depression, Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Huntington’s disease, addictions and schizophrenia.

Healing Trauma

Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. concluded the conference with a presentation based on his New York Times best-selling book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma.

After having been traumatized, Dr. Kolk said, the brain is re-set to respond to ordinary challenges as existential threats, and the body continues to pump out stress hormones that make people feel frazzled, agitated or shut down. In response, traumatized individuals tend to organize much of their energy on “not feeling and sensing their inner experience.”

“The sad side effect of this is that they pay with their capacity to fully engage in activities and relationships,” he said. “After the brain has been rewired to over-focus on danger it has trouble paying attention to subtle changes in one’s universe.”

He said that “bottom up processes” involving touch, movement and breathing, along with “top-down processes” using mindfulness and interoception (sensitivity to stimuli originating inside of the body}, can help traumatized children and adults to “regulate their arousal and regain mastery over their own ships.”

While the four experts take different approaches to treatment, all agree that rewiring the brain can play an important role in the successful treatment of eating disorders.