Are There Genetic Eating Disorders

Until recently, scientists believed that eating disorders resulted from environmental and psychological risk factors alone. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that genetic risk factors play a significant role in the development of anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders.

Genetic Risk Factors

Family history is one of the risk factors for eating disorders. An individual with either a parent or sibling who has had an eating disorder is at a greater risk of developing an eating disorder herself.

Researchers from Michigan State University (2007) have recently helped to shed some light on “genetic” eating disorders. They found that while environmental factors alone account for eating disorder causes in pre-pubescent females, genetic factors account for 50 percent or more of the risk by the age of 17. These risks factors likely work together with biological, environmental and psychological factors as eating disorder causes.

Hormones and Genetic Eating Disorders

For girls, the risk for developing an eating disorder increases around the time of puberty. The Michigan State University (2007) study found that this increased risk might be due to elevated levels of estradiol, the dominant form of estrogen in women. As a sex hormone, estradiol is “activated” during puberty.

Researchers discovered that adolescent girls with higher levels of estradiol are more susceptible to developing an eating disorder than girls with lower levels. Scientists believe that these higher hormone levels may be involved in “switching on” genes that increase a young woman’s risk of developing an eating disorder.

Inherited Personality Traits and Related Disorders

Some people may also have certain personality traits and disorders (which may have a genetic component) that put them at a greater risk for developing an eating disorder. People with avoidant personalities, who tend to be perfectionists and extremely sensitive to criticism, may be more likely to develop anorexia. Individuals with borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder may also be at increased risk of eating disorders.

Eating disorders often accompany other mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Like eating disorders, each of these conditions results from a number of complex factors, although they each have strong genetic components. It could be that the same genetic risk factors that increase the risk for anxiety disorder, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder also influence the risk for genetic eating disorders.

Resources

Academy for Eating Disorders. (n.d.) Risk factors of eating disorders. Retrieved July 8, 2010, from http://www.aedweb.org/Risk_Factors.htm

A.D.A.M. (2008). Anorexia: In-depth report. Retrieved July 13, 2010, from http://health.nytimes.com/health/guides/disease/anorexia-nervosa/print.html

Grice, D. E., Halmi, K. A., Fichter, M. M., Strober, M., Woodside, D. B., Treasure, J. T., … & Berrettini, W. H. (2002). Evidence for a susceptibility gene for anorexia nervosa on chromosome 1. Retrieved July 8, 2010, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC384957/

Mayo Clinic. (2010). Risk factors. Retrieved July 8, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/eating-disorders/DS00294/DSECTION=risk-factors

Michigan State University (2007). Genetic risk factors for eating disorders discovered. Retrieved July 9, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070511150158.htm