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Study examines role of sexuality and sexual functioning in eating disorders recovery

Eating disorders (EDs) are complex mental illnesses which can strike anyone, irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Although there is still uncertainty regarding what exactly causes EDs, it is believed that a combination of psychological, biological and sociocultural factors is involved. The onset of EDs typically takes place during adolescence, and their symptoms can be long-lasting. Adding to the complexity of EDs is the presence of comorbid conditions, including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and substance abuse.

Past research suggests that EDs often co-occur with sexual dysfunction. Distorted body image issues can lead to sexual problems like loss of libido, sexual dissatisfaction and reduced interest in sex. A recent study, published in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics in November 2017, attempted to investigate if sexual functioning can predict the responses to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and be a potential indicator of recovery from two well-known diagnoses of EDs – anorexia nervosa (AN) and bulimia nervosa (BN).

The results showed that when psychological interventions were focused on the core psychopathological features of EDs, similar changes were observed in several areas of sexual functioning among individuals with AN and BN. Improvements in sexual functioning also resulted in a reduction of some specific symptoms of EDs, including body uneasiness. However, no direct correlation was observed in the case of weight restoration and binge-eating reduction. This suggested that although some individuals with AN reverted to their normal weight, they still faced sexual impairments and while some individuals with BN reduced binge eating, they still reported sexual dysfunctions.

Definition of recovery is debatable

The recovery process in EDs is typically monitored by relying on symptoms like weight restoration, reduction of binge-eating occurrences and normalization of diet. The current study noted that researchers seldom considered sexual functioning and hormonal profile as predictors of ED outcomes. This prompted the authors to challenge the definition of recovery based exclusively on parameters of weight restoration or behavioral changes.

The researchers referenced previous studies which suggested that full recovery after treatment remained elusive for a majority of individuals with AN and a large proportion of people with BN. According to them, “the definition of recovery itself is still a matter of debate.” Only a limited number of studies have been conducted on the long-term recovery rates of EDs, with different parameters being used in each of them. This makes their findings inconsistent and difficult to compare. Experts also expressed difficulty in defining recovery for an illness which has both physical and mental traits.

New approach to long-term recovery of eating disorders

The current study presents a new approach for assessing long-term recovery of individuals suffering from EDs. National surveys in the United States estimate that nearly 20 million women and 10 million men will suffer from an ED at some point in their life. While EDs in general can be fatal if under-treated or inadequately treated, anorexia is considered the most fatal mental disorder. The two most common causes of death for individuals with EDs are heart failure and suicide.

According to the authors, the inclusion of sexual functioning and hormonal profile in the psychopathological assessment of EDs may help in the identification of any residual pathological condition. It will also provide additional data regarding the long-term recovery process of individuals with EDs.

If you or a loved one is suffering from bulimia or any other eating disorder, contact the Recover Mental Health. Being a repository of resources for mental health treatment resources, it can help in your recovery by connecting you with the best bulimia rehab center in your vicinity. Call at our 24/7 helpline number 866-593-2339 or chat online with our representatives for more information on state-of-the-art eating disorder treatment centers near you.

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