Genetics play a significant role in mental health disorders. Individuals who have one or more family members with a mental health disease are more likely to develop a brain disorder than those without a family history. This link holds true for eating disorders as well.

Eating Disorders

People with eating disorders have an unhealthy focus on, or obsession with, food. Left untreated, eating disorders cause serious illness or even death. Eating disorders tend to run in families, and more than 90 percent of sufferers in the U.S. are adolescents and young women. These individuals frequently suffer from depression, anxiety, and obsessions as well.

There are three main types of eating disorders.

Anorexia Nervosa. Individuals with anorexia intentionally starve themselves in pursuit of an unrealistic and unhealthy body image. They are obsessed with food and weight. Roughly one out of 10 anorexics dies from starvation, cardiac arrest, suicide, or other medical complication.

Bulimia Nervosa. Bulimia causes people to eat excessively and then purge.

Binge eating disorder. Binge eating disorder is characterized by episodes of uncontrolled eating (binging). Unlike bulimia, binge eaters do not purge after an eating episode.

Eating Disorders and Genetics

In a 10-year study of more than 600 families, each with two or more members who suffered from an eating disorder, the researchers concluded, "eating disorders may be as inheritable as other psychiatric illnesses, such as schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder."

Studies with twins also found similar genetic links. In fact, researchers found that genetics account for 56 percent of a person's likelihood of developing an eating disorder. If your mother or sister has anorexia, for example, you are 12 times more likely to develop anorexia.

Are There Additional Causes?

Genetics are not the sole culprit. Environmental factors may trigger eating disorders in those who are predisposed.

Scientists believe that genetics influence neurotransmitters that control appetite. Anorexic patients are twice as likely to have a gene variant in cell receptors for the neurotransmitter serotonin. People with excess serotonin are more prone to anxiety, which may be why anorexics are able to suppress their appetite. There is no one gene for eating disorders. Rather several genes, along with environmental factors, influence whether an individual is vulnerable to developing an eating disorders.

While the role of genetics in eating disorders is still under study, mental health experts hope this knowledge will relieve patients and parents (who are often blamed for their child's eating disorder) of guilt and pave the way towards more effective prevention and treatments.


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