How Genetics Affect Eating Disorders Among Female Adolescents

Author: Abinaya Sridharan, Evergreen Valley High School, '24

Seeing the statistics showing how many young female adolescents suffer from eating disorders is quite saddening. Did you know that according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which reports that eating disorders rank as the third most common chronic illness in young females? Most common of them being anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. It’s quite shocking how so many females, many of them being pre teens to early twenties develop an eating disorder, but why is this so common amongst us? Well first to know how this occurs we must understand how these disorders work.

Anorexia Nervosa being one of the more common eating disorders, is an illness in which a person shows intense fear of gaining weight and usually restricts their meals to keep themselves at their “ideal weight.” According to the Mayo Clinic, people with anorexia “may control calorie intake by vomiting after eating or by misusing laxatives, diet aids, diuretics or enemas.” They also may have a habit of exercising excessively to lose weight. “No matter how much weight is lost, the person continues to fear gaining weight.”

Bulimia Nervosa is an illness in which a person intensively binges on an excessive amount of food, which is followed by purging to get rid of the calories in an unhealthy manner. According to the Mayo Clinic, people with bulimia “may regularly self-induce vomiting or misuse laxatives, weight-loss supplements, diuretics or enemas after bingeing.” They may also exercise, fast, and diet excessively to keep off the weight .

Most people develop an eating disorder during puberty. This piece of information is connected by a recent study in an article called “Puberty as a Critical Risk Period for Eating Disorders: A Review of Human and Animal Studies,” provided by the NIH. The article mainly discusses how the study of ovarian hormones in humans and animals affect the development of eating disorders in young females during puberty.

So how exactly do ovarian hormones affect eating disorders? Well, Ovarian hormones (estrogen) seem to be “activated '' during puberty and may increase the physical risk for eating disorders in females. It's not currently known why this happens, but scientists are attempting to figure out why this occurs in young females. This has also been observed in animals (rhesus monkeys), showing that ovarian hormones have a direct effect on food intake, as well. This leads us to question how, exactly, eating disorders work. Are they solely based on genetics? But what role do other factors such as epigenetics, environment, social conduct, etc play into this? If puberty does play a role in increasing the risk for eating disorders in women, what makes some young females more prone to it than others? Some researchers believe that eating disorders are affected by multiple different factors and not solely based on hormones/genetics, but that has yet to be studied in depth. These studies make us consider the role of hormones on eating disorders in women, which, perhaps, may give us a clearer understanding of these illnesses

Let's move onto the side effects of eating disorders. We all know that having an eating disorder can be deadly to one's body and mind, but why is it so harmful and how does it affect a person in the long run?

Well, people who have anorexia nervosa are prone to depression and anxiety and may turn to alcohol and drug abuse, as well. One physical effect of anorexia nervosa is Bradycardia, which is when the heart has an abnormal heartbeat ranging from 60-100 heartbeats a minute. The flow of blood rate is reduced by a significant amount and blood pressure drops, which then makes the heart become weaker and shrink in size. Another physical effect can be Electrode imbalance, which is when electrolytes levels in our blood are too high or too low and is caused by dehydration and starvation. Electrolytes are minerals in our body that have an electric charge, and they help balance the amount of water in our body. Other long-term effects include potential loss of calcium in the bones, seizures, anemia, gestational issues, organ failure, and more. As for a person who has Bulimia nervosa, they may experience poor self-esteem, anxiety, depression, cardiovascular complication, high blood pressure, diabetes, heartburn, and more. There are also financial implications for people who have this disorder, such as expensive food purchases.

It's not a surprise how deadly and traumatizing these eating disorders can be. However, more and more studies are being conducted on this topic, and perhaps in the near future, we will have better medical and physiological care for patients who do have these eating disorders.

Graphic by Eshi Sharama