Genetically inherited adaptation to famine meets personality traits or, another evolutionary hypothesis for anorexia.

August 1, 2018

I have taken a longer break from writing about anorexia, recovery, or the self-growth and awareness that arise as you are almost forced, to meticulously analyze your thinking and actions, in the process back to health. But in my pause, one idea kept surging back to mind; so I thought, what better way to pass the time waiting for my friend, who at this point may never show up, than “blurb-ing up” those thoughts and seeing what comes out of it. Truth is, I love writing.

 

From the start, one thing clear was that my anorexia had absolutely nothing to do with “my emotions” or, as many think to know, a sense of “loss of control in life” redirected towards my body. My elation in starvation, the endorphin release in warding off hunger, my lack of appetite, but also my aversion and refusal to eat seemed very much a natural choice. This was until I decided to fight it. Like manna from heaven, I suddenly got to witness the peculiar nature of my behaviors, which had been there all along. Accepting that there was a problem I needed to seek help for was a crucial turning point.

 

See, you don’t need to question the behaviors, or try to understand anything at all really. What you need to do is eat. Eat, eat, and eat. You can cry. But you’ve got to keep on eating. You will not want to do it, it will feel awful and you will not understand why, but progressively everything starts to make sense.

 

For me, one of the greatest enlightenments in understanding anorexia was that it is a genetic-based illness: an evolutionary adaptation that would enable “bearers of the gene” to survive in times of famine, inducing them to migrate towards areas of abundant food. Multiple times I got acquainted with this theory. For instance, we have the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, run between 1944 and 1945 on a couple dozen mentally and physically healthy men, which has proven that, when placed on restrictive diets, anyone can develop the exact symptoms of anorexia nervosa. There are also scientific trials conducted on mice evidencing that the ones who get cutoff from food will increase their activity levels and refuse to eat on the follow. You will find an entire community of knowledgeable doctors, scientists, nutritionists, and therapists who can explain that the biological makeup of the people who fall into anorexia allows them to go for extended periods of time without eating much. Eventually, a switch gets triggered in the brain whereby food will no longer feel like a necessity of life, but rather a threat to it.

 

Indeed, referencing the work of psychologist Shan Guisinger, during the primitive times, when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, a famine would lead them to start migrating and induce them to waste no time by stopping to feed. Certainly, they had to be the first ones to arrive in places of abundant food, where they could feast at last. Because our ancestors did not yet have their cognitive brain developed, it wasn’t a conscious decision to forgo feeding in efforts be the first to reach the land of plenty. It is simply an innate survival trait: a response to prolonged lack of nutrition, which precipitates further abstinence from feeding and urges to move. This is known as the adaptation to flee famine, as evidenced by migrating birds, or the starved mice I alluded to.

 

The same biological make up exists in people genetically predisposed to anorexia, so that prolonged calorie deficits trigger that survival mechanism. Sadly, in today’s world and culture, this ability to forgo food can develop into a deadly illness. In reality, because there is no perceived famine, the feasting that was supposed to ensue does not take place. When recovery finally happens, in a society that demonizes weight gain and cheers on thinness, feasting, or “binging” as we pejoratively call it becomes a source of great pain and confusion. (Read my posts on “extreme hunger”.)

 

Science aside, you know what did it for me? What truly helped me see this illness for what it is: an adaptation to starvation? It was a passage in Victor Frankl’s book “Man’s search for meaning”. But before I get to that, know that this novel has nothing to do with eating disorders. It narrates life, or rather survival, in concentration camps during the war and there are many reasons as to why this very book couldn’t have been a better read in my initial stages of recovery.

 

First and foremost, I can’t even begin to explain how awful the first months of re-feeding felt. I suffered so much pain and misery that reading about life in the camps truly helped put things into perspective. I will never undermine my physical and emotional suffering during recovery. I easily tear up just remembering it. But being reminded about what humanity has gone through and survived helped give me the courage and power to fight the daily battles. I was brought back to my reality. If mankind managed to live through that, I sure as hell can survive this. I must “simply” eat and it is going to be ok.

 

The second illumination in this book was the message it carried. It is through love, hope and meaning that one finds the internal strength to survive the toughest of circumstances. In a blissful way, I started to feel. Feeling the love I carried for my mom, for my dad, for my sister, my friends. Feeling the beauty in aged youth, the sweetness in bitter coffee, the tranquility in a wild storm, warmth in a frozen lake, the flawlessness of an imperfect body, peacefulness in a traffic jam, the temporary character of eternity…Feeling all that, and so much more, not only brought a sense of meaning to my current circumstances, but more importantly, it fed an ambition to realize my values, which, brought to light, set off a pressing fire to heal. Suddenly, there were so many things I wanted for my life. And in order to pursue them, I had to be well.

 

As a final point, getting back to the “adaptation to famine” in anorexia at last, there was a passage in the book that helped me to recognize that there was nothing “wrong with me” for my eating disorder driven behaviors. Indeed, the men in the concentration camps, evidently starved and emaciated, when given their daily allotment of food, displayed behaviors that sounded all too familiar. They would pick at their bread roll, save it for later, sometimes not even eat it, despite working for hours on end. To survival their bodies adapted, so that food was no longer a priority.

 

With that in mind, isn’t it interesting to think about, how this genetic trait that some of us carry, has historically been a blessing for survival, and yet, it has an increasing probability to turn deadly in a society that promotes weight loss as a basis for health or appetite suppression as means to subjectively-decided-upon desired bodies?

 

Now, let’s get down to what I truly intended to analyze, that idea that keeps coming back to me, as I steer away from the biological nature of the illness to consider the psychological implications of anorexia (that part we all love to analyze).

 

I never bought too much into the emotional components of this illness. Yet, the character traits of the people who come to develop anorexia are too similar to ignore. The drive for perfection, the “black and white” thinking, and the tendency to put other people’s feelings and needs before one’s own, are all too common. In the eating disorder questionnaire, chances are we all tick the same boxes. In light of the adaptation to flee famine theory, could it be that the hunter-gatherers who were responsible for their community’s survival also bore those same traits? In hindsight, it makes sense.

 

While we have accepted the behaviors of anorexia nervosa as adaptive mechanisms for survival, I believe that the psychological characteristics seen in patients can also be considered evolutionary traits for survival.

 

Without a doubt, I can recognize how an “all or nothing” mentality would be essential in environments where threats were ever present. Orderliness, existence of and compliance with the rules are indeed necessary when the potential arrival of other antagonistic tribes can be a danger to survival. There are times to play and times to obey, respectively marked by periods of tranquility, when new abundant and safe lands were conquered, and periods of stress, when there was no room for “balance” in fighting for survival. 

 

I also see how perfectionism ties into survival, as a character trait of the “most likely to prevail”. Always striving to be the best spurs further trial, error and perseverance through success, prompting continuous learning and growth. This in turn allowed for new cooking methods to be discovered, for new shelter ideas to be created, and for new strategic thinking to arise. All in all: survival.

 

Finally, the ability to look after your own tribe and offspring allows the lineage to exist and carry on. Thereof, it comes as no surprise to me that putting the needs of others before one’s own could equally be an archaic trait of survival. And isn’t it fascinating to note how, in Victor Frankl’s book, it is those who developed strong ties and friendships, looking after inmates, who were the predominant survivors of the holocaust? Think about it… I for one can’t help but see a linkage. 

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