Starving in the Midst of Plenty

One of the characteristics of anorexia, says researcher and clinician Daniel LeGrange, is not just starvation; rather, he says, it is starvation in the midst of plenty. While one theory is that anorexia may have evolved as an adaptation to allow humans to better withstand famine, most modern cases of anorexia occur where food is abundant. In that sense, perhaps anorexia can be understood as self-administered starvation.

Which is where a recent study on cocaine addiction comes in.

A recent study from the University of California, San Francisco found that self-administered cocaine had different effects on dopamine receptors than a passive infusion of the drug.

Says a press release:

...cocaine-associated changes were due to an associative process and not just to the pharmacological effects of the drug. "We suggest that neuroadaptations induced specifically by drug self-administration may form a powerful 'memory' that can be activated by drug-associated cues," explains coauthor Dr. Billy T. Chen.

How self-administration of a drug but not a natural reward can elicit enduring changes within the brain remains a mystery. "Future studies are required to identify the exact mechanisms through which drugs of abuse alter neural circuitry that is normally accessed by naturally reinforcing events but is usurped by cocaine to persistently cement these synaptic adaptations, perhaps ultimately leading to pathological drug-seeking behavior," concludes Dr. Bonci.

While anorexia is not cocaine addiction, the illness does involve differences in dopamine levels and receptors in the brain. Perhaps part of what cements anorexia (besides the starvation itself) is the self-seeking behavior. The "benefits" of starvation to the sufferer are reinforced each time he or she skips a meal, binges, purges, and overexercises.

From an evolutionary standpoint, the survival of the human species means that people will need to begin eating after a famine has passed. The ability to withstand starvation may have descended from this. But anorexia nervosa may cement itself into a life-threatening illness when a person begins to starve while food is abundant.

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mary said...

Glad your back and have identified yourself as the true blogger and not some automated word shooter or whatever they thought you might be. Ridiculous.
Ironic that it came after a "DUH" post.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article. While I was anorexic, if someone else kept food from me (e.g., my ritual daily milkshake wasn't available; servings were small and there weren't seconds), I would freak out.

Anonymous said...

Have you read the Scientific American article "Addicted to Starvation?" It included a lot of information I previously did not know about.

Here's the link:

I've never posted before, but I love your blog! Your writing style is wonderful and you have a great variety of topics.

Anonymous said...

Hm the link got chopped off - just go to the SCIAM website and search for anorexia.

nadja said...


Anonymous said...

hey! i am so glad i found your site, you seem awesome. i love how you refer to your cat as "furry prozac." i also suffer from depression/anxiety and have been on and off medication for it. i don't have anorexia, but i bounce back and forth between eating too much and maybe not enough. but overall, i'm pretty overweight, so you can see which one i do more!

<3 kristine

Carrie Arnold said...


I think part of the reason isn't that you (the person with AN) doesn't have his/her food, it's that everyone else DOES. I think that's what (in part) makes the disease powerful. But I had my yogurt brands and flavors and heaven help you if you ate the last one! I think this is the OCD part kicking in.


Yes, I have seen that article from Scientific American and I think it's fantastic. I've been meaning to link to it but keep forgetting

Carrie Arnold said...


Welcome! I'm glad you found me (and my chronicles of mental illness and "furry prozac"). I hope we can all start trying to figure out together how to beat this eating disorder--and the brain disease "friends" that often come along for the ride.

Laura Collins said...

I think you've got it! It makes sense.

I am coming to see that the ascetic nature of refusing food while others eat may activate an otherwise dormant brain pattern. Like superheroes who only transform under certain environmental conditions!

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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