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