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The Genetics Behind Anorexia And Over-Exercising

There is not one single cause of anorexia athletica, but many factors that are involved in the disorder. Research has shown that an area on chromosome 1 is linked to anorexia nervosa-sports anorexia.[5] Thus, a person is more likely to have anorexia athletica if someone in their immediate family has had the disorder. Not only genetics, but also the environment a person is in, has a major impact on the disorder. Coaches and parents often suggest to their athlete/child to lose weight in order to perform better. Sports such as figure skating, ballet, and gymnastics promote both male and female athletes to have a thin figure. Other research has grouped sports according to the characteristics that may increase the prevalence in certain types of sports. For example the pursuit of a certain body aesthetic in gymnastics, the need to be in a certain weight categorisation in order to compete in judo or endurance sports such as running where weight and performance are closely linked.[7] Females who partake in sports can develop a syndrome known as the triad. The female athlete triad was recognized in 1992 and is defined as a spectrum disorder of three interrelated components: (1) low energy availability due to disordered eating, eating disorder, or lack of nutrition relative to caloric expenditure; (2) menstrual dysfunction; and (3) low bone mineral density (BMD).[8] The media play a very significant role in pressuring athletes to have the perfect body and to be thin, which can also trigger sports anorexia.[1]

The Genetics Behind Anorexia and Over-Exercising


Anorexia nervosa is a psychiatric disorders characterized by an overwhelming fear of gaining weight coupled with extremely low body weight and distorted body image. Over the years, research has suggested a range of potential causes, including personality traits, genetics, and developmental challenges. However, emerging research has suggested that anorexia may be a metabolic disorder.

Peer pressure is one of the most common causes of atypical anorexia. People with this disorder often feel like they need to be thin to fit in with their peers. They may compare themselves to others and feel like they are not good enough. This can lead to dangerous behaviors, such as starving themselves or over-exercising.

A person with anorexia nervosa may become very underweight by over-exercising or suppressing their diet. People with anorexia often think they are overweight, even when this is not the case, and suffer from body dissatisfaction.

Anorexia nervosa encompasses behaviors like dieting, fasting, over-exercising, taking diet pills, diuretics, laxatives and vomiting. Women outnumber the number of men affected by anorexia, drastically.

Traditionally, individuals had to be below 85% of their ideal body weight to receive a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa, a disorder characterized by restrictive eating, over-exercising, distorted body image and intense fear of weight gain. But in 2013, a new category of eating disorder was formally recognized: atypical anorexia nervosa. Individuals with this condition meet all other diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa but have a normal body weight.

Given the complexity of anorexia and how many people with this illness continue to suffer from it despite receiving treatment, researchers are seeking to better understand how this illness develops and how it is most effectively treated. For example, as individuals with anorexia tend to have low levels of cortisol in their blood, and behaviors like dieting and exercise tend to increase cortisol levels, giving anorexia sufferers cortisol supplements is being explored with some success. The best approaches for psychotherapy in adults with anorexia, the possible benefit of 12-step programs in treatment, the role of genetics in the development of this disorder, and the effectiveness of various medications in treating anorexia are other areas of continued need for research.

The American Psychological Association (APA) supports a range of therapeutic treatment options for people who are living with bulimia and/or anorexia. Because the driving forces behind these disorders (e.g., poor body image, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and peer pressure) are often just as important as the manifestation of the disorder in terms of the direction of treatment, the focus of therapies for both conditions may be similar though the structure may be different.

The disorder is a culmination of cognitive, physical, emotional, and behavioural symptoms. These may involve obsessing over weight, not recognising one is underweight, heart palpitations, low blood sugar, skipping meals, and over-exercising. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders has three key principles for diagnosing anorexia; the patient must be severely underweight, they must have an intense fear of gaining weight, and they do not recognise how unhealthy they are.

Many studies have found a biological explanation to the disorder, including one that found a 58% concordance rate (a term in genetics used to explain the presence of the same characteristic in twins) for anorexia in identical twins, compared to only 5% for non-identical twins. While this demonstrates that there may be a genetic component to the disorder, the question remains as to whether there is a specific gene that causes anorexia?

Twin and adoption studies highlight that genetics substantially contribute to the risk for developing eating disorders. There is a moderate-to-high heritability of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder in females and males during adolescence and adulthood.32

These traits are typically genetically driven. Medical science has not identified specific genes associated with the condition but that is a growing possibility. There is compelling evidence to indicate genetic factors create a heightened risk of an anorexia nervosa diagnosis. Epigenetics, the influence of environment on the way genes behave, is another strong consideration in the therapy for anorexia nervosa.


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