By: Jennifer L. Gaudiani, MD, CEDS

Cerebral atrophy — or what’s known as “starved brain” — is a common complication of anorexia nervosa and describes a loss of brain mass due to starvation. When a person does not get adequate nutrition regularly, starved brain will affect concentration, memory, cognitive flexibility, and fear responses, regardless of brain size. 

Many of our patients at the ACUTE Center for Eating Disorders — even while being high-functioning — realize about a week into nutritional rehabilitation that they do have some type of so-called brain fog. They realize their concentration was compromised, that they were driven by rigid rules and fears rather than having the ability to be spontaneous, creative, and flexible, and that their memory was worsened. 

Studying is more difficult, projects take longer to complete, and the eating disorder voice gets louder and more intrusive. 

Friends: the brain runs on glucose (what carbs are broken down into). It needs fuel in order to function properly. 

Starvation can turn your thinking patterns into “cavegirl survival mode.” If you’ve ever had a pet who had surgery or just experienced a big storm outside, you know that the stress of that situation makes them unhinged for awhile … backed under the bed, tail puffed up, eyes huge. Sound familiar? When the body experiences the stress of malnutrition, your cave brain (that is, the sub-cognitive part of your mind that controls many of your body systems) acts just like a wounded, stressed animal…everything’s terrifying, everything’s a threat or a risk. 

Remember, brains and bodies need consistent nutrition for survival.