Mar 24, 2015


“Honesty is reached through the doorway of grief and loss. Where we cannot go in our mind, our memory, or our body is where we cannot be straight with another, with the world, or with our self. The fear of loss, in one form or another, is the motivator behind all conscious and unconscious dishonesties: all of us are afraid of loss, in all its forms; all of us, at times, are haunted or overwhelmed by the possibility of this.”

(Whyte, D. 2015. Consolations. Many Rivers Press, Langley, Washington).

I attended an AA meeting last Sunday morning where the subject of the meeting was honesty. Interesting questions were posed such as:

  • “What is honesty?”
  • “Did you have a time in your life when honesty was completely disregarded?”
  • “As your disease progressed, did it become more and more difficult to tell the truth?”
  • “Did you even remember what the truth was?”
  • “Did you cheat and steal to get drugs, alcohol, or food for your disease?”
  • “Did people in your family lie?”

Lack of honesty certainly goes hand-in-hand with addiction to drugs or alcohol. Substance abusers lie to protect their drinking or drug behaviors, which become more important to them than their relationships with family and friends. The very same lack of honesty is present for most people with eating disorders. Many people lie about their eating habits. “I ate!” “I ate what was on my meal plan.” “I only ate a salad today. Why am I not losing weight?” They may lie when they talk about purging! Or binging. When someone begins to lie in one area of their life, it tends to spreads to many other areas.

When your life has been sustained by lies, it’s hard to open up and let other people see who you really are. But it’s only through living honestly than you can strengthen relationships, conquer problems, build self-esteem and create a richer and more meaningful life.

Mar 18, 2015

Skills, Not Pills to Treat Binge Eating Disorder

refrigerator with foodYou may have already seen the ads for Vyvanse, the new FDA-approved drug for the treatment of binge eating disorder. Vyvanse was originally marketed for the treatment of ADHD, but Shire Pharmaceuticals, the drug’s manufacturer, is now promoting it as “an effective option to help curb episodes of binge eating.”

Binge eating disorder (BED) is the most widespread of all eating disorders and affects 1% to 5% of Americans. For years it was classified as a medical condition. But in 2013 the authors of DSM-V saw the light and classified BED as an eating disorder.

Psychological variables such as low self-esteem, depression and anxiety can trigger BED. Genetic predisposition, a close relative with an eating disorder or drug addiction or the metabolic disturbances caused from chronic dieting can also be contributing factors.

When people have BED, they frequently act impulsively. They feel ineffective and alienated and may be haunted by perfectionism. Individuals with BED are at higher risk of developing other illnesses, including anxiety disorder, cardiovascular symptoms, chronic fatigue, depression, infectious diseases and insomnia.

In today’s world of big pharma, it seems like there’s a pill for every illness. Clients who suffer from depression or anxiety seasoned with PTSD and substance abuse often arrive at Mirasol with a suitcase full of medications. But at Mirasol, we believe in “skills, not pills”. In 16 years of treating binge eating disorders and co-occurring conditions, we have found that a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, nutrition counseling and alternative therapies such as EEG neurofeedback is far more effective than psychotropic medications.

Time will tell whether Vyvanse lives up to the manufacturer’s claims. It’s worth noting that in 2014, Shire paid more than $50 million to settle a claims that it had engaged in illegal marketing tactics, including marketing Vyvanse for unapproved, off-label uses and falsely representing its safety.

Mar 10, 2015

Are Arizona teen eating disorders caused by climate?

Diane RyanA recent article in the February 28, 2015, edition of the Arizona Daily Star calls much-needed attention to the high incidence of eating disorders among southern Arizona teens. Arizona ranks second in the United States for teens who have purged as a method of weight control and has twice the incidence than the U.S. average, according to a recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, I must take issue with two of the article’s conclusions. Firstly, the article attributes the prevalence of eating disorders to Tucson’s climate. It quotes Dr. Nia Sipp, medical director for Sierra Tucson’s eating disorders program, as saying, “Arizona has a lot of sunny, warm days and summer clothing is more revealing, which leads to more body image issues.”

Perhaps Dr. Sipp’s remarks were taken out of context. Although pressure to conform to cultural standards in body size complicates the challenges of acknowledging and recovering from eating disorders, body image alone is not responsible for their development. Eating disorders are a response to a complex set of factors, including genetic, neurobiological, social, developmental and relational. They are often associated with other mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and substance use, and may be linked to bullying and childhood trauma.

Secondly, the article claims that it is very difficult to find treatment for eating disorders in Arizona. Again quoting Dr. Sipp, “Young people can’t find anyone to work with in the Tucson community,” she said. “You can throw a stone and hit an AA group, but there are really no free eating disorder support groups.”

Founded in 1991 and fully-accredited by Arizona Department of Health Services Office of Behavioral Health and the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF), Mirasol Eating Disorder Recovery Centers offers residential and intensive outpatient treatment to both girls and boys ages 12 to 18, providing effective treatment to both adolescents and their families.

For teens, friends and family members concerned about eating disorders, the Mirasol website offers a wealth of information and an assessment that may shed light on symptoms and their severity. Additionally, Mirasol sponsors a weekly free community meeting for anyone who is struggling at our outpatient facility.

In light of compelling statistical trends, it is important to remember that eating disorders are the leading cause of death from any mental disorder, affecting males as well as females. Eating disorders contribute to serious medical complications across the life span. There is hope, however. Recovery is possible with ongoing support and high quality, evidence-based treatment.

Diane Ryan, MA, CPT
Executive Director, Mirasol Eating Disorder Recovery Centers

Mar 4, 2015

Ground-Breaking New Research on the Genetic Origins of Anorexia Nervosa

Jeanne RustIn 2000, researchers identified genetic susceptibility for anorexia and bulimia, binge eating disorder and obesity as well as for substance abuse, anxiety, and major depression. Family and twin studies have shown that relatives of someone with an eating disorder are at increased risk for developing a disorder because of a genetic component present in all eating disorders. Studies have shown that 58% – 76% of the incidences of anorexia may be due to genetic factors.

An upcoming issue of the International Journal of Eating Disorders will publish ground-breaking new research by Dr. Howard Steiger that is likely to change our view of anorexia nervosa and its origins. The current project used genetic information from 1,200 anorexia patients and nearly 2,000 non-anorexic controls.

In the new report, researchers found that the longer people suffer from anorexia, the higher the likelihood of alterations in their DNA, specifically in DNA methylation, which can cause changes in an individual’s physiological and emotional make-up.

Dr. Steiger says the study demonstrates a relationship between anorexia and alterations of methylation levels in genes having to do with anxiety, social behavior, various brain functions, and the function of different organs. When gene expression is altered, the expression of traits that are controlled by those genes is also changed. Steiger states that we may come to the conclusion that eating disorders are not just about body image or bad parenting.

“These findings help clarify the point that eating disorders are not about superficial body image concerns or the result of bad parenting,” says Steiger. “They represent real biological effects of environmental impacts in affected people. Here we have physical mechanisms acting upon physiological and nervous system functions throughout the body that may underlie many of the effects of long-term anorexia. The question is, ‘Does remission of AN symptoms coincide with normalization of methylation levels?’”

Every day women are exposed to media of all kinds, movies, TV, magazines and social media that drive home the importance of being thin. But somehow all of these women don’t become anorexic or develop what’s called a “thin-ideal internalization.” Genetic factors may make certain women more susceptible to the pressure to be thin.

In each cell chemical reactions activate and deactivate parts of the genome at strategic times and in specific locations. Epigenetics is the study of these chemical reactions and the factors that influence them. Epigenetics involves genetic control by factors other than an individual’s DNA sequence. DNA methylation is used in some genes to differentiate which gene copy is inherited from the father and which gene copy is inherited from the mother, a phenomenon known as imprinting.

The epigenome dynamically responds to the environment. Stress, diet, behavior, toxins, and other factors regulate gene expression. Many brain functions are accompanied at the cellular level by changes in gene expression. Epigenetic mechanisms such as histone modification and DNA methylation stabilize gene expression, which is important for long-term storage of information.

Not surprisingly, epigenetic changes are also a part of brain diseases such as mental illness and addiction. Understanding the role of epigenetics in brain dysfunction may open the door to being able to influence it. This may lead to the development of new and more effective treatments for brain dysfunctions.

Eating disorders are complex psychiatric disorders in which genes, environment, and gene-environment interactions have a role. The combination of genes and environment can be modified by factors such as malnutrition or stress and this may result in long-term or acute epigenetic modifications.

Genetic variations can contribute to the pathophysiology of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. The interplay between genetic and environmental factors is just beginning to be understood. This is the first study reporting alterations of global and gene-specific DNA methylation in a sample of patients with eating disorders.

Steiger’s discovery is important and will lead the way for further research perhaps by learning how to modify epigenetic changes in cells affecting a person’s physiology and nervous system. Will it be possible to prevent more pronounced alterations of methylation levels? When an anorexic patient goes into remission, are changes in methylation levels permanent or will they coincide with recovery? Can we develop medications that will affect methylation levels?

The possibilities for healing the human genome are endless.


Freiling, H., Gozner, A., Romer, K., Lenz, B., Bonsch, D., Wilhelm, J., Hillenmacher, T., de Zwaan, M., Kornhuber, J., and Bleich, S. (2007) Global DNA hypomethylation and DNA hypermethylation of the alpha synuclein promoter in females with anorexia nervosa. In Molecular Psychiatry, 12, 229-230.

Frieling, H., Romer, K., Scholz, S., Mittlebach, F., Wilhelm, J., De Zwann, M., Jacoby, G., Kornhuber, J., Hillemacher, T., and Bleich, S. (2009). Epigenetic dysregulation of dopaminergic genes in eating disorders. In International Journal of Eating Disorders, 7, 577-583.

Pjetri, E., et al. (2012). Quantitative promoter DNA methylation analysis of four candidate genes in anorexia nervosa: A pilot study, Journal of Psychiatric Research,

Pjetri, E., Schmidt, U., Kas, M., and Campbell, I. (2012). Epigenetics and eating disorders. In Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 15 (4), 330-335.

Mar 2, 2015
Marion MacDonald

Gone Wild: Backpacking with Mirasol

Adventure therapy is a key component of Mirasol’s integrative eating disorder treatment program, but plans are afoot to expand the role of wilderness therapy, especially in our adolescent program.

We’re aiming to offer bimonthly two- and three-day trips, taking advantage of Arizona’s wealth of impossibly lovely wild public lands. Each trip will include a 50-50 split of medically- and emotionally-appropriate clients and the clinical staff required to ensure their safety and support them in their journey. The results of the program will be closely monitored by administering brain maps, depression inventories and similar tools before and after each trip.

To prepare for the upcoming trips, six Mirasol therapists put their packs on their backs and spent two days trekking in a remote valley high in Tucson’s Catalina Mountains. The group was led by an experienced backpacker, and included primary therapists, exercise therapists, an aftercare therapist as well as Mirasol’s Executive Director, Diane Ryan.

“I think it’s important to see what we’re capable of — what challenges us as clinicians and as adults — and also assess what we get out of it — what we enjoy and what we struggle with,” says Mirasol Primary Therapist, Jenna Jarrold.

There were plenty of challenges to go around, from preparing (and eating!) dehydrated food to keeping your balance while dancing across roaring mountain streams on slippery boulders with pack on your back. But although nearly all of them were beginning backpackers, each one met their challenges with grace and gusto, and they were clearly inspired both by their surroundings and by their ability to overcome every obstacle.

For Primary Therapist Jamelynn Evans, the weekend was all about connection: “Nature really helps me connect within,” she reports, “but also connect with the other women in the group.”

Almost by definition, eating disorders arise from an individual’s inability to connect with the self and with others. The limitless ability of the natural world to both challenge and soothe presents opportunities to grow new relationships, and make wilderness interventions a natural fit for both adolescents and adults in treatment.

Challenge courses, hiking and other outdoor activities have always been part of Mirasol’s eating disorder treatment program. Beginning in 2006, Ryan began adding wilderness experiences including camping and even caving. The response from clients and staff was overwhelmingly positive. More importantly, EEG brain maps and standard psychological tests demonstrated significant decreases in symptoms of anxiety and depression.

“There was a significant improvement in brain functioning for most participants, especially in the beta waves that are generally associated with anxiety,” says Ryan. Most clients also reported a decrease in symptoms of depression and an increase in their ability to cope with stress, as measured by a Children’s Depression Inventory (CDI) and Coping Skills Inventory (CSI) administered before and after the camping trips.

The visible transformation that occurs during Mirasol’s adventure therapy program is a huge source of inspiration to clients and their families as well as Mirasol staff.

For more information, see Why Wilderness by Diane Ryan, Mirasol Executive Director and former Clinical Director.

Music Credits

“Balada Fada” featuring André Coelho, from the album ODYSSEIA by M-PeX
“When”, from the album Spin Day and the Emotional Godfather by Spin Day
“The Long Awaited Rains”, from the album The Well by saQi