New Therapy to Treat Bulimia Nervosa Developed

First Posted: Nov 19, 2012 12:46 AM EST

Eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia are real, complex and often lead to serious medical complications over time. Anyone can develop eating disorders but more often females tend to be victims of this than males.

According to Statisticbrain, nearly 8 million people suffer from eating disorders and 2.5 percent women suffer from bulimia. You cannot force a person with eating disorders to change. Many celebrities have battled bulimia and anorexia like Calista Flockheart, Jane Fonda, Mary Kate Olsen and Lady Gaga. If not checked in time the disorders can even lead to death.

Curing bulimia is no easy feat as till date there was no specific treatment available. But the good news is that, a new bulimia therapy has been discovered that can provide patients an alternative for treating this debilitating disorder.

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by binge eating. Individuals with bulimia nervosa also engage in behaviors such as inducing vomiting and consuming laxatives. These behaviors may be followed by prolonged bouts of fasting, even though the person afflicted may be of normal weight. The term bulimia comes from a Greek word meaning "ravenous hunger, although the extent to which hunger actually motivates binge eating is unclear. Bulimia nervosa was first described by the British psychiatrist Gerald Russell in 1979.

The eating disorder research team was led by  Stephen Wonderlich, director of clinical research at the Neuropsychiatric Research Institute.

According to Wonderlich, also a University of North Dakota Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience, this new treatment is psychological in nature and focuses on eating and emotion related behavior through the arduous process of dealing with and eliminating the bulimic symptoms.

Developed over a period of more than 10 years, this therapy included 80 patients that were treated in a randomized controlled trail. This was done at the research institute in Fargo and the University of Minnesota, department of psychiatry.

The objective of this study was to compare a new psychotherapy for bulimia nervosa with an established treatment from England. The new therapy was titled "Integrative Cognitive-Affective Therapy".

James Mitchell, Wonderlich's colleague and also a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor and chair of Neuroscience, participated in developing this therapeutic treatment.

"In a scientifically controlled comparison with the treatment developed by Chris Fairburn at Oxford University, which is the most scientifically supported treatment available for adult individuals with bulimia nervosa, this new treatment performed comparatively well," said Wonderlich.

"We had one of the lowest dropout rates in a scientific trial ever with this population," Wonderlich said. "In other words, just about everyone who started the trial completed the treatment, which with these patients is important, just getting people to complete the treatment."

According to Wonderlich, the trial was well-run with research teams at each site, Fargo and Minneapolis, and an evaluation team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"When we did the scientific comparison, there was no difference between our treatment and the established treatment in terms of outcomes--they were comparable, or equal, in their efficacy," he said. "This is good news for the field because now there is another promising alternative treatment available which is a little different in nature than the Oxford treatment."

"Basically, what we're trying to do is get people (with bulimia nervosa) to eat differently," Wonderlich said, "but you also have to look at the way they view the world and function in it. The Oxford treatment focuses on the bulimic individual's overvaluing of body shape and weight as well as dietary restriction, while our treatment focuses on eating behavior as well as what we would call emotional variables and relationship variables."

"Our treatment is basically saying that we think that emotional processes--feeling badly--are very important in triggering bulimic behaviors," he said. "People actually engage in the bulimic behaviors because they feel better momentarily."

The treatment is based on research conducted with Neuropsychiatric Research Institute NRI colleagues Ross Crosby and Scott Engel. In this, the patients were asked to document their feelings and behaviors. These responses were a key part of the therapy. The patients documented their feelings and behavior with the help of personal digital assistants such as the Palm Pilot.

"Now we will use cell phones or smart phones," Wonderlich said. "Basically, we're asking patients to report how they feel and observe the increase in negative emotions leading up to the behavior; what we want to know is what are things that make people feel badly, and then help them recognize that, and change their responses to those negative emotions.

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