A Change In Perspective: Anorexia

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Anorexia Nervosa affects 0.9% - 4% of women and 0.3% of men. It is notoriously difficult to treat, prone to relapse and often made worse by the accusatory stigma inflicted onto sufferers. However, a new scientific breakthrough may help change the way the disorder is perceived both medically and in the public eye. 

Anorexia has long been considered a purely psychiatric illness, but a recent collaborative study has discovered a genetic component. With nearly 17,000 anorexia sufferers providing DNA to the study, when compared against over 55,000 control samples, researchers found a connection between those who had the disorder and eight particular genes. Researchers initially predicted the connections between psychogenic genes relating to depression, obsessive compulsive tendencies and anxiety, but also found a correlation between genes governing metabolic function and physicality. The research goes on to suggest that this genetic factor explains about half of heightened anorexia risk, stressing that the environment they're in should not be disregarded. However, there is still significant overlap as behaviours arising from these psychogenic genes may be intensifying the type of family/home environment once thought to cause anorexia development. 

As stated in the paper, “These results further encourage a reconceptualisation of anorexia nervosa as a metabo-psychiatric disorder. Elucidating the metabolic component is a critical direction for future research, and paying attention to both psychiatric and metabolic components may be key to improving outcomes.”  

A combination of techniques are currently used to treat the condition, such as behavioural and family therapies, supervised weight gain and nutritional education, all of which are more successful the earlier they are implemented. But, now that some of the genes correlating to higher risk individuals are identifiable, it may be easier to reduce the risk of relapse or even preemptively recognise and construct healthy family/home environments to lessen the risk of development. There may also be potential in developing treatments specific to patients’ metabolic function and maintaining healthy BMI. 

Although we’ll have to wait to see the effectiveness of any reform in treatment strategy, the study is also gaining praise for social significance in its potential to change accusatory misconceptions about the disease. It’s all too common for sufferers to be blamed for developing the condition; that it’s all ‘just in their heads’, or that they’re simply too susceptible to striving for a warped vision of body perfection. Frustratingly, this kind of flippancy is nothing new in regards to mental health issues, but now that anorexia nervosa has been proved to be deeper and more complex, hopefully compassion will prevail. Even the change in language, redefining it as metabo-psychiatric, will play a key role in opening dialogue and increasing understanding surrounding the disease.

Article by Thomas Phillips  

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