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The Genetics Behind Anorexia and Over-Exercising

July 16, 2018 Eating Disorders
anorexic woman in athletic wear sitting on couch and is picking at 1 cucumber with fork

The exact cause of anorexia nervosa is not known. Most likely a mix of psychological, environmental and social factors come into play, as well as hormones that lead to symptoms of anorexia, but it has also been found to run in families.

Anecdotally, when people with anorexia share their stories, it’s not uncommon to hear they have a sister or cousin who suffers from the same malady. Researchers have been working to prove that genetics may be an underlying factor for this complex disorder.

Women are the most susceptible to anorexia, and they are especially vulnerable to developing it between ages 12 and 25. These young women often suffer from low self-esteem and perfectionism.

“People with anorexia have an obsession and preoccupation with weight, body image and calories,” says Catherine Silver, LCSW, a psychotherapist who specializes in eating disorders and body image problems. “They think they are overweight when they are not. Many people with anorexia struggle with high levels of anxiety in general, but particularly noticeable around food or meal time.”

Finding the Genetic Link

In recent years researchers have focused on identifying genetic causes, links and similarities in families. One study showed that there is a genetic linkage. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s department of psychiatry and the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior are among researchers who confirmed that there is a “greater-than-chance likelihood that two separate DNA sequences will be close to one another on the same chromosome, supplying biological evidence for a genetic trait if seen among two or more family members.”

Another study looked at serotonergic and opioidergic neurotransmitter system alterations that have been observed in people with eating disorders and evaluated participants for linked genes that may be associated with other members of the same family.

While there has been a focus on trying to understand the physical, psychological and social aspects that lead to symptoms of anorexia, there has been a greater effort to understand the biopsychosocial factors. When researchers explore predisposing and precipitating factors they can create more effective strategies to prevent and treat symptoms of anorexia.

It’s a painful and potentially deadly condition. People with anorexia go to extreme measures to limit their food intake and to compensate for any caloric intake, sometimes with over-exercising.

Understanding Anorexia Athletica

Some people develop anorexia athletica, also known as hypergymnasia or sports anorexia, which is identified as excessive and compulsive exercise.

“A lot of people with anorexia have type A personalities so there’s a lot of perfectionism, rigidity and desire to be in control,” explains Silver. “There is a lot of compensating for food that was eaten. It is often through exercise, but it could be through laxatives, diuretics, diet pills or purging.”

Anorexia athletica can impact anyone but is especially common among athletes who participate in sports where they are required to have lean and flexible bodies. Those who suffer from anorexia athletica often compare themselves to successful competitors in their field or famous athletes and suffer from low self-esteem if they cannot achieve the same success.

Symptoms of anorexia athletica include

  • Preoccupation with exercise
  • Guilt and anxiety when they do not exercise
  • Lying about the amount of exercise they are doing and hiding their excessive exercise regime
  • Exercising when ill or injured;
  • Isolating while exercising

They typically exercise in relationship to food, working out extra hard to compensate for eating. Although moderate exercise is healthy, anorexia athletica can have a drastic impact on health and well-being.

Researchers say that there are many innate factors, including genetics, that contribute to the risk of developing anorexia. But they are only some of the aspects to consider. It is hoped that researchers can develop a full genetic profile for people with anorexia as well as identify those in the family most likely to develop symptoms of anorexia or anorexia athletica.

 

Sources:

“Anorexia Nervosa” – University of Rochester Medicine
https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/childrens-hospital/adolescent/eating-disorders/teens/anorexia-nervosa.aspx

“Candidate Genes For Anorexia Nervosa In The 1p33–36 Linkage Region” – Nature.com
https://www.nature.com/articles/4001318

“Evidence for a Susceptibility Gene for Anorexia Nervosa on Chromosome 1” – ScienceDirect.com
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002929707602821

“Causes of Anorexia Nervosa” – ScienceDirect.com
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1476179308000347

“Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa & Anorexia Athletica” – The Ranch Blog
https://www.recoveryranch.com/resources/eating-disorders/symptoms-anorexia-nervosa-anorexia-athletica/

“Eating Disorders and Female Athletes” – Springer Link
https://link.springer.com/article/10.2165/00007256-199417030-00004

“Anorexia Athletica in Pre-Professional Ballet Dancers” – Taylor and Francis Online
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02640414.2011.578147?src=recsys&journalCode=rjsp20

“Prevention of Eating Disorders In Female Athletes” – NCBI.gov
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4026548/

“Neurobiological Model of the Persistence of Anorexia Nervosa – Journal of Eating Disorders
https://jeatdisord.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40337-016-0106-2

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