Anorexia Not Only Psychiatric Disorder, Link to Metabolism Discovered in New Study

Anorexia was previously believed to only be a psychiatric disorder, a new genetic study finds it to be partly a metabolic one.

A large-scale global study involving over 100 academics from around the world, has discovered that anorexia nervosa is partly a metabolic disorder, and not purely a psychiatric one as was previously known. 

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The study was led by researchers from King's College London and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the findings were published in Nature Genetics on Monday. 

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What is anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is a very serious illness that can lead to fatal or life-threatening situations. Symptoms of the illness include extremely low body weight, a strong fear of putting on weight, and distorted body image. 

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Anorexia Not Only Psychiatric Disorder, Link to Metabolism Discovered in New Study
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The illness affects 1-2 percent of women, and 0.2-0.4 percent of men worldwide, and has the highest rate of death of all the psychiatric illnesses. 

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What did the researchers find?

The team observed the dataset of 16,992 anorexia nervosa cases across 17 countries in Europe, North America, and Australasia. 

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The main points that the research discovered are: 

  • Separate from genetic effects that influence body mass index (BMI), the genetic basis of the illness is intertwined with metabolic, lipid (fats), and anthropometric (body measurements) traits. 
  • The genetic basis of anorexia nervosa is linked to other psychiatric disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. 
  • The genetic factors linked to the illness also influence physical activity - which explains why certain people with anorexia nervosa are highly active and sporty. 

"Metabolic abnormalities seen in patients with anorexia nervosa are most often attributed to starvation, but our study shows metabolic differences may also contribute to the development of the disorder," said Dr. Gerome Breen, from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and the Insitute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King's College London. 

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Breen continued, "Furthermore, our analyses indicate that the metabolic factors may play nearly or just as strong a role as purely psychiatric effects."

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This research discovery may help doctors and clinicians to develop better suited, and thus, appropriate methods of treating the disorder. 

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As Professor Janet Treasure, also from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King's College London, said "Over time there has been uncertainty about the framing of anorexia nervosa because of the mixture of physical and psychiatric features. Our results confirm this duality."

The disorder may need to be considered a hybrid 'metabo-psychiatric disorder.' It'll be important to consider both metabolic and psychological factors when treating people suffering from anorexia nervosa.

Chief Executive of Beat, the U.K's eating disorder charity, Andrew Radford, said: "This is ground-breaking research that significantly increases our understanding of the genetic origins of this serious illness."

Radford ended with: "We strongly encourage researchers to examine the results of this study and consider how it can contribute to the development of new treatments so we can end the pain and suffering of eating disorders."

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