The Anorexia Virus

A newspaper article caught my eye yesterday. It bore the headline "Anorexia may be caused by bacterial infection". I made a mental note to read it today, and now I'm writing this.

Although I personally do not have anorexia, it has nonetheless had a profound effect on my life. Over the years, it has caught hold of a considerable (and considerably alarming) number of my nearest and dearest, and I have formed some pretty solid opinions as a result.

I've always been interested in mental health and the research surrounding mental illness, and although saying I'm overjoyed by this new development is perhaps a step too far, to say I'm buoyed by and glad of it is an understatement.

It is now widely accepted that those who do suffer from any sort of mental health issues (not all, but a significant number) are often genetically predisposed to it. This is a fact. In the same way that scientists have established you can be genetically predisposed to, for example, being tall, having a hereditary disease, being musical or having green eyes, they have found that the same applies to mental health. It seems obvious - why shouldn't the same apply?

What they have also found is that anorexia in particular is more prevalent among those within a certain environment. Described by some as "socially contagious", it is twice as common in girls at predominantly girl schools, and in particular from 'well-educated' families and with high aspirations, whether academic or otherwise, and whether self-imposed or set for them by someone else.

What's being investigated now, though, is another contributory factor: bacteria.

This bacteria in question is thought to cause the immune system to attack perfectly healthy parts of the body, which is strongly reinforced by the fact that women are more susceptible to autoimmune diseases (the article cites pernicious anaemia - vitamin B12 deficiency, holla Mum), where the immune system basically just makes a mistake. It thinks something ought to be attacked, when really it's either something else entirely, or even nothing at all.

This is what may well be happening with anorexia. In massively simplified terms, this bacteria ends up causing parts of the brain to be attacked, resulting in the thoughts, mindset and behaviours characteristic of the illness. This is because the brain starts producing feelings of disgust and fear, which are then very quickly and firmly intertwined with the perceived ideals of appearance fed to us by the media. This impenetrable linking of the two is what spirals out of control whilst simultaneously taking over control of sufferers' minds, ending up in what we know as anorexia.

Although this could be seen as a somewhat terrifying discovery - the fact that something as simple as bacteria can cause people to push themselves to such extreme lengths for control - I am more than glad of the development.

I cannot put into words the relief I feel that people are finally realising how absurd it is to expect that anorexia could ever be within the control of its sufferers. When witty, talented people capable of passing exams with flying colours and holding intelligent conversations about complex topics are the same people weighing and measuring food and drinks to the gram, scheduling their lives around exercise routines, spending inordinate amounts of time reading about or looking at or preparing food for people other than themselves, and looking in the mirror only to see something so very distorted from the truth visible to the rest of the world, then something is definitely wrong. And that something is more than vanity or narcissism or the product of an increasingly egotistical society.

While anorexia is a matter of control much more than of appearance, in some ways it is the controlledness of the rest of someone's life that highlights the extent of the problem to those who may otherwise struggle to see it. Tell me: how can it be that someone can function so brilliantly at sport, at music, at academics, at a busy and exciting social life, all at the same time as tearing themselves apart so intensely and so very cruelly, entirely of their own accord?

That's just my point. It's not of anyone's own accord. It's not a choice. And finally science is proving that, too - proving what anyone who stopped to think about it for half a second has known all along. That anorexia, and mental illness generally, is a wholly legitimate illness just like any other.

There's a lot more progress to be made, but we're well on our way. Maybe now that the message shared for years by those who have experienced anorexia first-hand is, at last, being reiterated through the megaphone of science, the rest of the world will finally start to listen.

*Disclaimer: I am not a professional in the field, these are just my opinions based on experience. I don't mean to offend anyone at all and I offer my sincerest apologies if I have.


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