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Chronic Anorexia Can Lead to Genetic Changes

A new Canadian study is the first to observe that the longer one suffers from active anorexia nervosa, the more likely a person’s DNA may be altered.

This biological change may lead to additional changes in physical and mental health.

Howard Steiger, Ph.D., head of the Douglas Mental Health University Institute Eating Disorders Program (EDP), in Montreal, in collaboration with Linda Booij, Ph.D., a researcher with Sainte-Justine Hospital and an assistant professor at Queen’s University, discovered alterations in DNA methylation are associated with chronic anorexia nervosa.

When methylation is altered, gene expression is also altered, and when gene expression is altered, the expression of traits that are controlled by those genes is also changed.

In other words, altered methylation can produce changes in emotional reactions, physiological functions, and behaviors.

The new study, to be published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, shows long-term anorexia nervosa in women is often associated with more pronounced alteration of genes that influence anxiety, social behavior, various brain and nervous system functions, immunity, and the functioning of peripheral organs.

“These findings help clarify the point that eating disorders are not about superficial body image concerns or the result of bad parenting. They represent real biological effects of environmental impacts in affected people, which then get locked in by too much dieting,” Steiger said.

“We already know that eating disorders, once established, have a tendency to become more and more entrenched over time. These findings point to physical mechanisms acting upon physiological and nervous system functions throughout the body that may underlie many of the effects of chronicity.

“All in all, they point to the importance of enabling people to get effective treatments as early in the disorder process as possible,” said Steiger.

Experts believe the results of this work imply that genetic mechanisms may underlie some of the consequences of anorexia nervosa that affect nervous system functioning, psychological status and physical health.

Researchers hope to discover if remission of anorexic symptoms coincide with normalization (or resetting) of methylation levels.

If they do, this knowledge would provide a host of new clues to develop improved treatments for the disorder.

Source: Douglas Mental Health University Institute/EurekAlert

Very thin woman photo available from Shutterstock

Chronic Anorexia Can Lead to Genetic Changes

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Chronic Anorexia Can Lead to Genetic Changes. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 9 Feb 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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