An eating disorder is a severe mental health condition characterized by persistent unhealthy changes in eating behaviors. These disorders significantly affect a person’s overall physical and psychological health, leading to unhealthy patterns of eating, excessive concern about weight gain, and a distorted perception of body image.
Research conducted over several decades has examined the impact of genetic factors on eating disorders, and it has been found that eating disorders are polygenic, meaning they are influenced by multiple genes. In addition, genes have been found to account for approximately 40 to 60 percent of the vulnerability to developing an eating disorder.
What Eating Disorders Have A Genetic Correlation?
Several eating disorders have been found to have a genetic component contributing to the condition. The following eating disorders are known to have genetic influences:
- Anorexia nervosa (AN): Anorexia nervosa (AN) is an eating disorder and a serious mental health condition affecting men and women of any age. Oftentimes, those living with anorexia restrict their food intake or exercise excessively which can result in drastic reductions in their weight. Genetic factors come to play in the development of anorexia nervosa, as indicated by extensive research that supports the hereditary nature of eating disorders. Close relatives of individuals with anorexia nervosa (AN), for example, have a significantly higher lifetime risk of developing AN compared to others.
- Bulimia nervosa (BN): Bulimia, classified as both an eating disorder and a mental health condition, is marked by individuals experiencing episodes of consuming a large quantity of food within a brief period and subsequently purging. Considerable evidence supports a genetic component in bulimia nervosa (BN). Genetic factors associated with impulse control, reward systems, and mood regulation have all been identified as influential in the development of BN.
- Binge eating disorder (BED): Binge eating disorder (BED) is an eating disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large amounts of food within a short period, accompanied by loss of control during binge eating episodes. People with BED often experience distress, guilt, or shame related to their eating behaviors. Binge eating disorder also appears to have a genetic basis as studies have found higher heritability estimates for BED, indicating a significant genetic influence. In addition, genes associated with appetite regulation, emotional regulation, and dopamine signaling pathways have been implicated in BED.
- Other specified feeding and eating disorders (OSFED): OSFED encompasses a range of eating disorders, including atypical anorexia nervosa and subthreshold bulimia nervosa. It is likely that these disorders also have a genetic component, although research specifically targeting OSFED is limited.
Theories Linking Genetics to Eating Disorders
Several theories link genetics to eating disorders. Here are a few:
- Genetic Predisposition Theory: According to the genetic predisposition theory, the probability of developing a specific disease is higher when certain genetic variations occur. Based on this theory, individuals may have an inherent genetic susceptibility to developing eating disorders, especially when they carry certain genetic variations or combinations of genes.
- Neurobiological Theory: According to this theory, genetic factors influence the functioning of brain circuits and neurotransmitter systems involved in appetite regulation, reward processing, and mood regulation. Variations in genes related to these systems could impact an individual’s likelihood to develop an eating disorder
- Psychiatric Genetics Theory: Eating disorders often co-occur with other psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. This theory suggests that shared genetic factors contribute to the overlap between eating disorders and these psychiatric conditions.
- Gene-Environment Interaction Theory: This theory emphasizes the interaction between genetic factors and environmental influences in the development of eating disorders, as the interplay between genetic and environmental factors is thought to shape the manifestation of eating disorders.
Studies Showing the Relationship Between Genetics and Eating Disorders
Numerous studies have explored the relationship between genetics and eating disorders. These studies have employed various methodologies and approaches to investigate the genetic underpinnings of eating disorders. Here are some notable studies:
- Family and Twin Studies: Family and twin studies have consistently shown a higher risk of developing an eating disorder if close relatives have an eating disorder as well. These studies have demonstrated a significant heritable component in eating disorders, indicating that genetic factors play a substantial role.
- Candidate Gene Studies: The term candidate gene refers to a gene that is believed to be related to a particular trait, such as a disease or a physical attribute. Researchers who have investigated specific candidate genes have hypothesized it to be related to eating disorders. These studies focus on genes involved in appetite regulation, reward pathways, and neurotransmitter systems implicated in eating behaviors.
- Animal Experimentation: Animal models have been used to explore the genetic basis of eating disorders. Researchers gain insights into the genetic influences on feeding and eating-related abnormalities by manipulating specific animal genes and observing their eating behaviors.
Relationship Between Genes and Personality Traits and Their Impact on Eating Disorders
Studies have shown that certain personality traits have a heritable component. Meaning they can be passed on from parents to children. Also, personality traits such as perfectionism, impulsivity, neuroticism, and low self-esteem have been associated with an increased risk of developing eating disorders.
Here’s how the relationship between genes and personality traits can impact eating disorders:
- Personality as a Risk Factor: Certain personality traits can be risk factors for developing eating disorders. For instance, individuals with high levels of perfectionism may be more prone to body dissatisfaction and engage in restrictive eating behaviors. In addition, genetic factors can contribute to the expression of these personality traits, increasing the vulnerability to developing eating disorders.
- Gene-Environment Interaction: Genetic factors and personality traits can interact with environmental influences to impact the development of eating disorders. For example, genetic predisposition towards neuroticism and environmental stressors can contribute to developing body image dissatisfaction and disordered eating behaviors.
- Mediating Factors: Personality traits may act as mediating factors between genetic influences and the development of eating disorders. For instance, certain personality traits may affect an individual’s response to environmental factors, such as how they interpret societal pressures or cope with stressors, which can influence the likelihood of developing an eating disorder.
Other Factors that Contribute to Eating Disorders
In addition to genetics, several other factors contribute to the development of eating disorders, including:
- Psychological Factors: Low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, perfectionism, distorted body image, and negative emotions like anxiety and depression can contribute to the development and maintenance of eating disorders.
- Sociocultural Influences: Unrealistic beauty standards, media portrayals of thinness, peer pressure, and cultural emphasis on weight and appearance can all influence body image and contribute to eating disorders.
- Family Dynamics: Family influences such as overly critical attitudes towards weight and appearance, family history of eating disorders, dysfunctional relationships, and childhood abuse or trauma can contribute to developing eating disorders.
- Life Transitions and Stress: Major life transitions can trigger or exacerbate eating disorders. These include events such as puberty, transitioning to adulthood, or significant life events. In addition, stressful situations or traumatic experiences can contribute to developing eating disorders as a coping mechanism.
- Excessive Dieting and Weight Loss: Engaging in restrictive diets, excessive exercise, or weight loss efforts can increase the risk of developing eating disorders. Restrictive eating behaviors can lead to losing control over food intake and trigger a cycle of disordered eating patterns.
Possible Treatment Options for the Genetics Part of ED
Treating eating disorders (EDs) involves a combination of medical, psychological, and nutritional interventions tailored to the individual’s specific needs, considering genetic and environmental factors.
Here are some possible treatment approaches that may be beneficial in addressing the genetic component of EDs:
- Pharmacotherapy: Medications can target specific symptoms associated with EDs, such as comorbid mood disorders or obsessive-compulsive features. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can be prescribed to help manage symptoms like depression, anxiety, or obsessive thoughts.
- Nutritional Counselling: Nutritional counseling from registered dietitians are an integral component of ED treatment. They help individuals establish regular eating patterns, learn about balanced nutrition, challenge restrictive eating behaviors, and develop a healthy relationship with food.
- Support Groups: Participating in support groups, such as those facilitated by ED organizations or therapy groups, can provide individuals with a sense of community, validation, and support, as peer support from individuals who have experienced similar struggles with EDs can help navigate recovery.