It has long since been established that eating disorders are mental health conditions which are often triggered by prolonged distress or sudden trauma, but a recent study by Kings College London showed that irregularities hardwired into certain people's DNA change the way their bodies process and store fats and sugars, making easier for them to starve themselves.
The eating disorder charity, BEAT, described the findings as 'groundbreaking'.
The study, which was published in Nature Genetics, looked at 16992 people who suffered from anorexia and 55525 people who did not, across 17 different countries. When looking at each subject's DNA (the blueprint for the body) it was clear that those suffereing from anorexia exhibited not only the mutated DNA commonly found in anorexia patients, but also DNA mutations which are linked with other psychiatric disorders such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), anxiety and schizophrenia. Surprisingly though, they also found mutations in the DNA monitoring the body's metabolism, particularly linked to how sugar and fat is processed. This means that anorexia should now be considered a metabo-psychiatric disorder as it is a disease of both the body and the mind.
What is Anorexia?
Anorexia is a condition where people feel compelled to starve themselves and lose as much weight as possible. People suffering from anorexia often have body dismorphia, so they see themselves as fat, even when they are dangerously underweight. It often results in organ failure and even death and is extremely difficult to treat, having a huge impact not only on the person themselves, but also friends and family and needs to be closely and constantly monitored.
How does metabolism affect anorexia?
There is much more research to be done, but scientists think that these changes allow people to starve their bodies for longer because under normal circumstances, the natural response of hunger would mean that the brain pushes back against the urge to starve the body, stimulating the appetite and surpressing any urge not to eat. The balance of these urges is very important in controlling weight.
What does this mean for eating disorders?
The result of these findings could mean that new research is possible into how to affect these changes and control the body's urges to eat either one way or another, bringing huge possibilities not only for anorexia sufferers but also potentially obesity patients. Knowing that there are physical causes of anorexia could also encourage sufferers to seek help. This is a complex area and is it hoped that further research will bring greater understanding of not only the causes of eating disorders, but also eventually management and treatment. More than anything, these findings bring hope.
In the meantime, it is essential that any sufferer of anorexia and their loved ones are supported through the pain and distress caused by this disease. Sufferers need to be referred to their GP or in extreme cases, hospital to ensure that they are given the correct care. Friends and family of anorexia sufferers need support too and talking therapies are an important part of the intervention. Knowing how to support an anorexia sufferer and what words and actions are not useful are an essential part of keeping someone safe.
Source: BBC News
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