Anorexia, it’s in your genes
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