Eating disorders are among the most common and deadly mental health problems in the country. According to the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, it is estimated that 8 million Americans suffer from some type of eating disorder, and the majority of those people are women. Sadly, eating disorders has the highest mortality rate out of any type of mental illness.
There is no one single cause of eating disorders, but it is rather a confluence of factors is thought to be responsible for the development of these mental health disorders.
The way that children are parented can play a major role in the development of eating disorders. Negative influences are particularly damaging. One study found that nearly 40 percent of pre-pubescent girls who were trying to lose weight did so at the behest of their mothers. Young men with eating disorders often have negative influences from their fathers. A family history of eating disorders further increases the risk of developing eating disorders.
(For more information on teenage eating disorders, read Recognizing Teenage Eating Disorders: A Guide For Parents.)
It seems that those with a family history of alcoholism or drug addiction have a higher incidence of developing eating disorders. No one knows for sure why the two are linked, but there are a few different theories. The most common theory is that both conditions are a shared manifestation of a predisposition for impulsivity in relation to a common mechanism involving endogenous opioids, which are compounds that occur naturally in the body that affect alcohol consumption and appetite.
Those with eating disorders tend to have a history of emotional disorders in a close family member, such as a mother or father. Although the exact reason is still being researched, it could be the result of an individual emotional response to a triggering event. For example, while something may cause one person to be depressed, it may cause the onset of an eating disorder in another. Since the mechanism is not well understood, this is only a theory.
A history of abuse, particularly sexual abuse, is very common among those with eating disorders. Studies have shown that up to 50 percent of women with eating disorders also have a history of sexual abuse. The idea is that the eating disorder is an attempt to change the body in an undesirable way in an effort to prevent future abuse. The good news is that research also shows that by addressing the abuse in treatment, an eating disorder is typically easier to stop or prevent.
People with a family history or an early childhood history of obesity are more likely to have an eating disorder. There are a few possible reasons for this. The first is that if there is a family history of obesity then someone could develop an eating disorder as an anxiety-like response in an effort to prevent their own obesity. Another possible reason is that the intense ridicule and self esteem problems that often accompanies obesity could lead to the development of an eating disorder.
Genetic predisposition plays a large role in the development of eating disorders. Those with a family history of anorexia nervosa, for example, are eight times more likely to develop the condition themselves. Twins will often develop the same eating disorders. Research has show that there is some relation between chromosome 10 and eating disorders.
In the American culture, women are bombarded with the images of “ideal” beauty as being rail thin. But in other parts of the world, such as Africa, the opposite is true. In several tribal villages girls are fed diets extremely high in fat and calories because heavier women are more desirable. So the influences of the culture in which a person lives in plays a bit role in their perception of the ideal body shape, and as illustrated in these examples can lead to the development of eating disorders in an effort to attain that unrealistic ideal.
Slight abnormalities in a person’s brain may leave them susceptible to developing eating disorders. The limbic system in the brain has been linked to eating disorders, and while this part of the brain doesn’t function well once someone has an eating disorder, research is finding that if this part of the brain is abnormal, it may in fact leave a person at risk for developing one. Another player is a protein found in the brain called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF for short. This protein has been linked to the development of eating disorders in some people.
There are a number of hormones present in the body that are responsible for regulating many of the normal functions of the body. However, when abnormalities exist, it can lead to eating disorders. In patients with eating disorders, high levels of cortisol and ghrelin, and low levels of reproductive hormones have been found. In addition, some neurotransmitters that are regulated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) have been found to be elevated in those with eating disorders.
There seems to be a higher incidence of eating disorders among those who have come from adverse situations as children. This includes poverty, mal-adaptive parenting, single family homes, childhood maltreatment and other factors. The most common types of eating disorders among these groups are binge eating disorders or bulimia.
No matter what the cause eating disorders can be treated, though it is often very difficult. It’s important to remember that eating disorders are psychological problems, not simply a lack of will power. Anyone who has disturbing or abnormal eating behavior should seek treatment immediately to prevent long term damage to the body or even death.