New Developments in the Study of Anorexia

Man doing eating disorder research

Contributor: Colleen O’Sullivan, RDN at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center

Researchers, medical doctors, and the mental health community know a great deal about the disease of anorexia and the study of anorexia. It is characterized by vast weight loss, fear of weight gain, and intense denial on the part of the individual with the illness.

It is well known that no one is immune, regardless of age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, religion or culture. Anorexia is not confined to the United States.

Today, women and girls are suffering and dying from anorexia in countries such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Moreover, it is a widely acknowledged fact that anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness.

However, what was not known throughout the field was if anorexia was exclusively a psychological disorder, or if there might be a true genetic component. Now, due to an in-depth study of anorexia and research published in Nature Genetics, the question regarding genetics has been answered.

An international study involving more than 100 researchers was spearheaded by investigators from the University of North Carolina and King’s College London.

Through blood samples, they compared the genetics of 16,992 individuals afflicted with anorexia and 55,525 anorexia-free people from 17 countries across North America, Europe, and Australia.

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First and foremost, it was discovered that a genetic component did exist by identifying eight areas on the genome where genes connected to anorexia risk factors were located. The study revealed other fascinating connections.

It verified a positive correlation between anorexia and other psychiatric disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression and anxiety disorder. In fact, the connection with OCD was one of the most positive correlations established to date in psychiatric genetics.

It was determined that the genetic basis for anorexia also overlaps with metabolic and body measurement traits. Prior to this research, when metabolic abnormalities presented in a patient with anorexia, they were attributed to starvation.

Image of DNA strand found in the study of anorexiaNow, it is believed that these very abnormalities not only preexisted but could have contributed to the onset of the eating disorder. Additionally, genetic factors associated with anorexia appear to influence physical activity, which may be why those with the disease tend to be highly active.

This ground-breaking study of anorexia and research has enormous implications for how this disease is understood. No longer can it be viewed as an illness of a strictly psychological nature. Genetics, as well as the environment, must be taken into consideration.

Additional research will, no doubt, alter treatment methods for anorexia, but may also lead to actual medications to target the underlying causes of the disorder, which would prove a game-changer. Despite the fact that anorexia has been taking lives for decades, no pharmaceutical solution has ever been available.

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Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center provides quality, holistic care to women and adolescent girls ages 12 and older. We treat individuals struggling to overcome eating disorders, substance abuse, mood and anxiety disorders, trauma and post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD), and co-occurring disorders. Our campus is located on 43 wooded acres just outside Chicago. This peaceful setting offers an ideal environment for women and girls to focus on recovery.

About the Author:

Colleen O'Sullivan ImageColleen O’Sullivan, RDN got her undergraduate degree from Eastern Illinois University and currently attends Lewis University for an MBA in health care. She has six years in the eating disorder field in many aspects of care including residential, partial hospitalization and outpatient. She’s currently a dietitian at Timberline Knolls’ Continuing Care PHP.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Reviewed & Approved on August 9, 2019, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC
Published August 9, 2019, on

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