The role of hormones in those at risk for eating disorders

Women have it tough.

Every month, we face a recurring cycle that throws our bodies out of whack and makes some of us really grumpy. To many women, the recurring cycle becomes routine. But to some, this biological function triggers a series of events that can cause them to suffer. The ovarian hormones that drive the menstrual cycle appear to be flipping switches on the genes that make some women more vulnerable to eating disorder symptoms.

In previous research, we determined that there are significant biological risk factors for eating disorders. My lab was the first to show hormonal effects on genetic risk for psychiatric disorders in girls and women.

Now, our lab has confirmed that ovarian hormones drive increases in binge eating and emotional eating across the menstrual cycle. This is problematic because as the cycle reoccurs each month, so does the biological drive to engage in these symptoms.

But now we know how and why this is happening, and we have caught the master conductor – ovarian hormones – in the act. Ovarian hormones are responsible for many developmental events, such as puberty. During and after puberty, hormones act on genes within the brain and body to trigger physical changes in the body.

For the first time, our work shows that these hormones also change gene functions that can trigger psychological symptoms in women. For women at genetic risk for eating disorders, that can mean increased chance of binge eating or emotional eating.

Following the same sample of women across the menstrual cycle, we found that the degree to which genes influence a woman’s emotional eating was up to four times higher in the high-risk phases of the menstrual cycle than the low risk phases. That is significant! Also consider, this is happening within days, not months or years as puberty does.

This research will hopefully lead us to better treatment options for women that suffer from eating disorder symptoms. If providers can pinpoint the days when binge eating risks are highest, perhaps those providers can give extra support and help them get through those difficult days.

It is likely that ovarian hormones are at play for other disorders and symptoms that vary across a woman’s cycle, such as anxiety and depression. We are likely only seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding the role of hormones in genetic risk for mental illness.

But we are closer than ever before, and we will get there. The women and girls that suffer from these real disorders deserve it.

National Eating Disorder Awareness Week: February 22-28, 2015


'I Had no idea':  5 things you may not know about eating disorders

In my latest research study we found out something about eating disorders that we didn’t know before, and every development brings about a new opportunity for treatment and healing for the millions of women that suffer.

Here are five things about eating disorders that will make you say ‘I had no idea’:

1. Women aged 16-25 are at greater risk of developing eating disorder symptoms during different points of their menstrual cycle.

  • Rates of binge eating are five times higher during the post-ovulation phase, and this reoccurs monthly as women cycle.

2. Changes in hormones can increase the risk to engage in binge eating behaviors in all women.

  • New data suggest that women who are at greater familial or genetic risk for eating disorders are more likely to develop these symptoms in response to the hormonal changes that occur during post-ovulation in women. 

3. Knowing that the menstrual cycle is a trigger for eating disorder symptoms will help us design better and more targeted treatments for those who suffer.  

  • For example, in women who are menstruating, we now know that there are 12 times over the course of a year when women are at greater risk for engaging in eating disorder symptoms like binge eating and extreme preoccupations with body weight and shape.   

4. Also, knowing that these times will reoccur over the course of a year can also help women be prepared for dealing and planning for these urges rather than being surprised and overwhelmed by them.

  • Knowing that symptoms are more likely to occur during some menstrual cycle and hormonal stages than others can help us target those high risk times in prevention and treatment efforts and help women develop coping skills for dealing with increased urges to engage in eating disorder behaviors and thoughts.

 5. Once eating disorder symptoms start, they can be difficult to stop and can lead to clinical eating disorders that can last for years and be extremely destructive, even causing death.  

  •  See your doctor, seek out a specialist in the area via on-line resources or, even better, contacting NEDA or AED for advice on specialty ED treatment centers in the area.