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Anorexia Not Just A Psychiatric Problem, Scientists Find

Helping alleviate the stigma and shame around the disease

An international study has found that the harrowing eating disorder anorexia nervosa is not solely a psychiatric condition but is also driven by problems with metabolism. The finding might shed new light on treatment options and explain why doctors have such a poor track record with helping sufferers overcome the eating disorder. 

Head of the QIMR Berghofer genetic epidemiology laboratory Nick Martin said the research had taken six years and involved the study of 17,000 anorexia nervosa cases from around the world. “I’m hoping that the results of this study will change that perception and alleviate that guilt,” Professor Martin told the ABC.

(Credit: Getty)

“We’ve known for quite a long time that there are genetic factors influencing anorexia,” Professor Martin added.

“The problem has been — do we know what the specific genes are … and that’s what’s taken us so long.”

Professor Martin said the new findings might help piece together why patients struggle to maintain a healthy weight, even after undergoing treatment. 

Gerome Breen, a geneticist at King’s College London, who co-led the study with US researchers at the University of North Carolina explains, via the Guardian, that in high-risk patients, the metabolism genes seem to combine with genes linked to psychiatric issues to raise the risk of anorexia. About half of anorexia is explained by genetics, with the rest attributed to life events and other factors.

Eating disorders and disordered eating together are estimated to affect over 16% of the Australian population. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric illnesses. It affects between 1% and 4% of women and about 0.3% of men. 

If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Butterfly Foundation National Help Line on 1800 33 4673 or visit the Butterfly Foundation.

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