Are Eating Disorders and Memory Loss Related?

By Kristina Randle, Ph.D., LCSW

What sort of mental disorder is this? I’ve had an eating disorder since summer 08. I lived off vegetables and fruits and did an excessive 3-4 hrs of exercise per day. My parents kept nagging at me to eat right but I just ignored them. I lost quite a few kilos and felt good about my appearance but it felt so tough to keep up all that exercise. I found myself really tired all the time and always in need of sleep. However, when night time rolled around, instead of going to bed at the right time I would stay up watching TV. This sleeping pattern began quite a while back in high school as I was always working late to complete my assignments. So I was sleeping late and waking up early for my morning exercise. Each day I probably only managed to get 5 hrs of sleep but that had been the norm for me since I was 14.

Another characteristic of my eating disorder is that I would keep to the strict ‘diet’ that I was on until a special occasion, like someone’s birthday party or a hotel buffet. In those circumstances, I would binge eat a lot. At hotel buffets it was socially acceptable to eat a lot but I constantly felt scrutinized when eating at birthday parties, simply because of the vast amounts of food I could stomach. I am of a petite stature and looked so skinny at the time that people were amazed by how much I ate.

Then, in October 08, I went for my first year of university at a prestigious school. Without my parents’ watchful eye, I felt so much more free. I realized that I could not maintain my strict exercise routine in uni so I had come to terms with the fact that I might gain a little weight. However, to compensate, I reassured myself that I would lose all that weight when I went back home for my holidays.

Things did not go as planned though and the stressful work situation meant I went for days on end without sleep and ended up binge eating everyday on all the free cookies and meals that were provided at various events on campus. I would stomach as much as possible as eating all that junk relaxed me and made me feel good for a little while. Many people commented on how starved I looked when I eating however which made me really embarrassed. I would also feel awful afterward once I had realized that I had taken in so may calories without doing exercise. As you can imagine, I put on a lot of weight as a result and there simply was not enough time during the holidays to get rid of all of it.

Then, a couple of months ago, I found that my memory had deteriorated a lot. I was losing huge chunks of my memory especially around mealtimes. I would never know whether I had eaten or not or what I had eaten. Mealtimes just seemed like a blur to me but I would never eat in the company of someone else so there was no one who could confirm that I had eaten if I had eaten.

When I was back for Easter holidays, my memory improved but I still forgot lots of little things. My mom kept accusing me of looking through her e-mails or taking things and not returning them back to their original places. At first I didn’t believe her, but there was always some form of hard-core evidence to prove her right. The missing pens would be found on my desk although I never remembered taking them and her e-mails would have been read. Furthermore, though I never remembered looking up her emails, it would vaguely jog my memory when she mentioned the contents of the email. It all sounded so familiar yet I don’t specifically remember reading it.

Recently, I was forced to confront my problem when my best friend accused me of stealing from her. This friend, Miss Y., has been my best friend since high school and is studying in the same university as me. We often do laundry together although I refuse to eat with her during mealtimes. She eats in the canteen and I always say I have things I can eat in my room that I have bought from the supermarket. A few days back, when we were doing laundry together, she ‘lost’ her University card. I found it a few days later amongst my laundry things and returned it to her.

But when she checked her student balance on her card, she found that a lot of money was missing since quite a few meals had been taken out of that card while it was ‘lost’. The amount of food bought off the card from the canteen was also colossal. But since the card was in my laundry bag the whole time, it must have been me buying all those things off her card. The problem is that I never remember eating all that food. I also don’t remember seeing the card or going to the canteen! Yet some people claim they saw me there buying food with her card.

I don’t know what else I might have done during this period of memory loss, which seems to be getting really bad. I’ve never had a mental problem before and to my knowledge, none of my family members have had any. I’ve also always been fair and honest when it comes to money. In high school I had a reputation for returning every single penny. So why would I steal? Am I one of those people that is prone to the addiction of stealing? In addition, are these all symptoms of a bigger problem? Or are they a result of my abnormal sleeping pattern and eating pattern?

Please help! I am desperate. I have to solve this problem before it gets too far. My friend knows about this as I told her when she confronted me and has forgiven me but I cannot live with myself. I need this to stop as I would otherwise be undeserving of her help. Please diagnose me!!!

A. You ended your letter by saying that you have to solve this problem before it “gets too far.” Please realize that this problem has already gone too far. It’s been out of control for a significant length of time. You’ve had an eating disorder that sometimes involves simply not eating at all and other times you can’t stop eating. You’re constantly tired. You’re now at the point where you’re losing large chunks of memory. You’ve stolen from a friend and have no recollection of having done so. As you noted in your letter there may be other things you’ve done that you can’t remember as well.

If you’ve ever read my column you’ll know that I usually cannot offer a diagnosis over the Internet. That’s because to be able to accurately diagnose an individual it would be necessary for me to meet with them and ask them many questions about their history, what they’re currently experiencing, and many more questions. Unfortunately I do not have much information regarding your situation so it makes it difficult to offer you a diagnosis over the Internet. Even though I can’t offer a specific diagnosis I may be able to help you to understand, with the information that you have provided, what you may be experiencing.

The concern with your situation is that you are experiencing significant memory loss. It’s difficult to know if the memory loss is related to your eating disorder. Memory loss, along with many other physical problems, can be a side effect of an eating disorder.

The memory loss may be a side effect of the eating disorder but another consideration is disassociation. Studies have shown that individuals with eating disorders may be at a greater risk of experiencing disassociation. The memory loss you are experiencing may be a form of disassociation. Disassociation is an unconscious mental process that disrupts a person’s thoughts, feelings or memories. People who have dissociative episodes report having gaps in their memory. Disassociative episodes are associated with trauma. Individuals who experience trauma are at a greater risk of having dissociative episodes as well as being diagnosed with an eating disorder. Research has shown that there may be a link between all three—disassociation, trauma and eating disorders. If I were able to interview you I would want to know if there was ever a period in your life that you find difficult to recall. I also would want to know if you have a history of trauma that would include sexual abuse as a child, physical abuse, emotional abuse or any other type of very difficult or significant life experience now or in the past. These questions would help me know whether your memory loss is the result of your eating disorder or if you’re experiencing dissociative episodes.

Even if I had the answers to the above questions it still may not be possible to know what exactly the memory loss is caused from. What we do know is that you’ve had an eating disorder for a significant period of time, you lack energy, you’re constantly tired and these are all related to eating disorders and so may be the memory loss. The memory loss you’ve reported is more extensive than what most individuals with eating disorders report. Again it’s difficult to gauge exactly what is causing the memory loss.

If I were your therapist I would have you undergo a thorough medical exam as well as a neurological exam. The purpose for this would be to rule out any medical causes of the memory loss. A medical doctor may be able to determine the cause of the memory loss. After you underwent medical testing it would then be important to focus your attention on treating your eating disorder. I’m not sure if you’re aware of this but eating disorders are the most deadly of all mental health disorders. More people die from eating disorders than any other mental illness. It’s important that you seek treatment for your eating disorder. Eating disorders terrorize your mind and your body. Usually they are a sign that something more significant is going on in one’s life. Some people believe that eating disorders are an attempt to control aspects about one’s life that cannot be controlled any other way. For some people the managing of food makes them feel like they have some level of control in their life. It’s an illusion however to believe that managing food will help one gain control over one’s life. If you have not sought help for your eating disorders please do so immediately. As I mentioned in the opening response to your letter you are worried about this problem going too far but it has already grown out of control. You need help now and not later.

I would strongly advise you to be evaluated medically. You’ve been living with an eating disorder and it’s important to assess the damage that has been done to your body. It’s also imperative that you get into treatment for the eating disorder immediately. As I mentioned before eating disorders are deadly. They should never go untreated. I hope that you will seek help as soon as possible. Please consider writing back and letting me know how you’re doing. I wish you luck.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 4 May 2009

APA Reference
Randle, K. (2009). Are Eating Disorders and Memory Loss Related?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 20, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2009/05/04/are-eating-disorders-memory-loss-and-eating-disorders-related/