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Anorexia, it’s in your genes

eating disorder mirror

No one likes to talk about eating disorders — specifically anorexia nervosa — despite the increased prevalence in both men and women. Like depression people tend to think that you can “just get over it” or some other nonsense. However new research is shedding light on the truth behind anorexia, much like with depression, there is a biological component involved. Simply put, it gets written into your genes.

The study is the first to observe effects suggesting that the longer one suffers from active anorexia nervosa (AN), the more likely they are to show disorder-relevant alterations in DNA methylation.

When methylation is altered, gene expression is also altered, and when gene expression is altered, the expression of traits that are controlled by those genes is also changed. In other words, altered methylation can produce changes in emotional reactions, physiological functions and behaviors. The new research is showing chronicity of illness in women with AN to be associated with more pronounced alteration of methylation levels in genes implicated in anxiety, social behavior, various brain and nervous system functions, immunity, and the functioning of peripheral organs.

“These findings help clarify the point that eating disorders are not about superficial body image concerns or the result of bad parenting.”

“They represent real biological effects of environmental impacts in affected people, which then get locked in by too much dieting,” says Dr. Steiger, Chief of the Eating Disorders Program at the Douglas Institute.

“We already know that eating disorders, once established, have a tendency to become more and more entrenched over time. These findings point to physical mechanisms acting upon physiological and nervous system functions throughout the body that may underlie many of the effects of chronicity.”

“All in all, they point to the importance of enabling people to get effective treatments as early in the disorder process as possible,” adds Dr. Steiger.

The results of this work imply that epigenetic mechanisms may underlie some of the consequences of anorexia nervosa that affect nervous system functioning, psychological status and physical health. If so, an intriguing possibility arises: Does remission of anorexic symptoms coincide with normalization (or resetting) of methylation levels (and could such effects provide clues to more effective treatments)? The research that the team is now doing is oriented toward exploring exactly this question.

To clarify something, epigenetic changes, or methylation of DNA does not actually change the DNA coding, just how it is read. My favorite analogy, one I use often, is that if genetics were sheet music, the different ways a musician can play the same notes, that is epigenetics. It’s looking at the way the musician of the body plays your genetic notes.

To that end, male, female, transgender or anything in between, if you suffer from an eating disorder, there is help out there — private help if you want it. There’s never shame in needing help, everyone needs a hand sometimes and despite what you may have heard, it isn’t just a “woman thing.”

Howard Steiger Et al. (2015). DNA methylation in individuals with Anorexia Nervosa and in matched normal-eater controls: A genome-wide study International Journal of Eating Disorders : 10.1002/eat.19378


2 responses

  1. Natosha

    This is very believable given the unknowns yet of epigenetics, and even more so scary that this disease, anorexia nervosa, that people are evolving with the disease to the point of almost altering evolution. I believe way too many people are focused on dieting, and the idea that the United States is highest amount countries as far as obesity does not help the factor at all. Not to mention the rise of bullying that is going on in schools as well. The idea has a lot of logic behind it, especially considering that when puberty, hits genes become more active, and thus is also a time that the body is changing a lot physically and mentally and illnesses such as anorexia become an issue at this time for many adolescents. Since the idea behind epigenetics is an environmental change to which causes the gene to become altered, it is also relevant to remember the even hereditarily changes can be modified environmentally for the better, meaning even if this does become part of our genes and potentially hereditary, we are capable of changing this, but we must do it the correct way! Hopefully some more research is able to assist us with doing this correctly, and hopefully this article will allow those that have this illness to seek treatment, because just like alcoholism it not only effects you as the person it effects everyone around you!


    February 13, 2015 at 12:15 pm

    • I agree, it is a scary idea and I particularly do not agree with bullying or fat shaming. Personally I think media has a lot of influence on the matter and it’s sad that pop culture drives so many people toward anorexia. I look forward to seeing more research on the matter since it really is a sad disease to suffer from. Thank you for such a thought out comment!


      February 13, 2015 at 12:49 pm

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