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Walking a Thin Line

Many hollywood actresses are making news with possible eating disorders. Is Tinseltown promoting body images that are impossible for humans to attain?

By Maria L. Chang | null null , null

What do Courtney Cox, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Calista Flockhart, and Lea Thompson have in common? For one thing, they're a new breed of TV superstar. Each actress is the lead of her own series. For another, they walk an extremely thin line: They look close to being dangerously underweight.

Actress Elisa Donovan, who plays fashion victim Amber in the TV series Clueless, crossed over the line in 1992 to battle anorexia, an eating disorder marked by an intense fear of gaining weight or getting fat (see "The Skinny on Eating Disorders,"). "At first, I'd eat no fat," Elisa says. "Then, I'd just eat breakfast — cereal and toast — and not eat again until night." Within a couple of years, the 5-ft, 6-in. actress weighed only 90 pounds.

For years researchers have tied eating disorders to severe psychological problems. Now scientists have found a new link in the equation: brain chemistry. People with anorexia and bulimia (binge eating followed by vomiting or overexercising), appear to have deficient amounts of serotonin, a brain chemical associated with moods and emotions, circulating in their brains. The lack of serotonin is also linked to people with depression. In fact, people with eating disorders are generally depressed.

IDEAL IMAGE
Many teens don't realize the psychological or physical dangers behind reed-like bodies. Instead they uphold super-thin images as their ideal. "The media has a tremendous influence — impacting on girls to be thin," says Elaine Yudkovitz, a New York psychotherapist and specialist in eating disorders. The statistics are alarming: About 1 in 100 adolescent girls suffers from anorexia. The results can be deadly. Roughly 10 percent of anorexics die of medical complications from lack of food, or from suicide.

Females aren't the only victims. In the past few years more males have been diagnosed with eating disorders as well. "Men are more focused on their bodies now than ever before," Yudkovitz says. Males are less likely to starve themselves to death; instead, many exercise excessively to get rid of the calories they ate — a condition known as exercise bulimia, which is also becoming very common in girls.

Doctors often treat anorexics and bulimics with prescription drugs and psychotherapy. But a new treatment may result from studies at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Researchers have identified a pair of hormones (substances that control the activity of an organ or tissue), called orexin A and B, in the brain that seem to influence feeding behavior in rats.

When researchers injected the hormones into rats' brains, the animals ate 8 to 10 times more food than normal within a few hours. Scientists hope drugs that mimic orexin might increase hunger in anorexics and induce them to eat. After all, the body demands food to get the nutrients it needs to produce energy, build tissue, and just survive.

As Elisa Donovan, who finally overcame anorexia, puts it, "I never thought someday I'd have to eat something or die."

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