Research: Anorexia also has physical causes - not just psychological ones

Research: Anorexia also has physical causes - not just psychological ones

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Anorexia is due to metabolic and psychological causes

It has long been thought that anorexia nervosa (anorexia) is a purely mental illness. However, researchers have now found that genetic causes of the disorder are both metabolic and psychiatric.

In the current joint study by King’s College London and the University of North Carolina, it was found that anorexia nervosa is at least partially a metabolic disorder and not, as previously assumed, a purely mental illness. The results of the study were published in the English-language journal "Nature Genetics".

What is anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is a serious and potentially life-threatening illness. Symptoms of anorexia can be a dangerously low body weight, a strong fear of weight gain and a distorted perception of your own body. Anorexia nervosa affects between one to two percent of women and 0.2 to 0.4 percent of men. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

Where did the evaluated data come from?

The researchers combined data collected by the Anorexia Nervosa Genetics Initiative and the Eating Disorders Working Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium. The resulting data set included 16,992 cases of anorexia nervosa.

What was found in the study?

The genetic basis of anorexia nervosa overlaps with metabolic factors (including glycemic), lipids (fats) and anthropometric (body measurement) traits. The results of the study show that this is independent of genetic effects that influence the Body Mass Index (BMI). The genetic basis of anorexia nervosa overlaps with other mental disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. Genetic factors associated with anorexia nervosa also affect physical activity, which could explain the tendency of people with anorexia nervosa to be very physically active, the researchers report.

Metabolic factors play an important role

“Metabolic disorders are most common in patients with anorexia nervosa. This is attributed to hunger, but our study shows that metabolic differences can also contribute to the development of the disorder. In addition, our analyzes show that the metabolic factors can play an almost or as strong role as purely psychiatric effects, ”explains study author Dr. Gerome Breen from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London in a press release. “Over time, there was an uncertainty about the development of anorexia nervosa due to the mix of physical and psychological characteristics. Our results confirm this duality and suggest that integrating metabolic information can help develop better methods for treating eating disorders, ”added Professor Janet Treasure of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience.

Is anorexia a hybrid metabolic-psychiatric disorder?

The results suggest that it is important to control the role of metabolism in order to understand why some people with anorexia nervosa fall back to a dangerously low body weight even after eating in hospital. The study concludes that anorexia nervosa may need to be considered a hybrid metabolic-psychiatric disorder and that both metabolic and psychological risk factors should be considered when looking for new ways to treat this potentially fatal disease. (as)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.


  • Hunna J. Watson, Zeynep Yilmaz, Laura M. Thornton, Christopher Hübel, Jonathan RI Coleman et al .: Genome-wide association study identifies eight risk loci and implicates metabo-psychiatric origins for anorexia nervosa, in Nature Genetics (query: 16.07. 2019), Nature Genetics
  • Genetic study reveals metabolic origins of anorexia, King's College London (query: 16.07.2019), King's College London

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