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Genetic Link Between Anorexia and Psychiatric, Metabolic Disorders?

July 29, 2019

For the first time, researchers have found a possible genetic link between anorexia nervosa and not only psychiatric but also metabolic disorders that may contribute to the disorder’s development.

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by a distorted perception of body size, severe restriction of food intake and dangerously low weight. Australian researchers examined the DNA of 17,000 people with anorexia nervosa – the largest genome-wide study of anorexia to date – and found eight genetic markers that shed light into its origins..

“This study confirmed that anorexia is linked to psychiatric disorders like obsessive compulsive disorder, depression and anxiety, but further suggested that metabolic variables like weight, cholesterol and type 2 diabetes, and even physical activity, may play a role in the development of the disorder,” said Dr. Mirjana Domakonda, a psychiatrist with the Hartford HealthCare Institute of Living in Hartford.

To date, experts believed that the metabolic abnormalities seen with anorexia were due to the starvation and malnutrition that accompany severe weight loss.

But, she noted, “These findings actually suggest that people with anorexia may have a predisposition to these metabolic disturbances that actually makes it harder for them to gain weight once they lose it, or makes them more susceptible to developing anorexia. Anorexia is certainly a psychological disorder, but we may need to pay more attention to these metabolic factors if we hope to develop successful treatments.”

There are currently no Food and Drug Administration-approved medications to treat anorexia, which Dr. Domakonda called “disheartening, as nearly 10 percent of patients with anorexia, if untreated, will die due to complications associated with the disorder.”

She said anyone who suspects a loved one may be struggling with an eating disorder should seek immediate help. Treatment, she said, includes:

  1. Ensuring patients are medically stable to prevent or stop damage to their heart or ward off other potentially deadly hormonal abnormalities.
  2. A slow but steady process of “refeeding” to get back to a healthy weight. This, Dr. Domakonda said, can take a long time but qualified centers provide a supportive environment that combines eating with therapeutic support.
  3. Ongoing therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy and family-based treatment.

“Psychiatric medications to treat comorbidities such as anxiety and depression that contribute to patients’ worsening health can also be helpful in preventing relapse,” she said.

For more information on services available at the Institute of Living, click here.