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Causes of Eating Disorders

Eating Disorders are chronic conditions with an identifiable progression and predictable symptoms.

Causes of Eating Disorders:
Eating disorders are complex diseases and not just a condition that can be treated with willpower. They meet the definition of a disease because, like other diseases, they have a particular destructive process for an individual, with a particular cause—be it known or unknown—and display a set of characteristic symptoms. Eating disorders are all primary mental health diseases, rather than being the secondary result of another condition. The conditions are chronic with an progression both identifiable and predictable. Eating disorders can be caused by a mix of sociological, psychological and genetic factors.

It's the belief of many researchers that there is a genetic link to eating disorders. Studies have demonstrated that identical twins have a greater co-occurrence of anorexia and bulimia than fraternal twins. Identical twins are more genetically similar than fraternal twins, which supports the fact that eating disorders have an inherited component.

More research into the genetic factors of eating disorders has keyed in on neurochemistry. It has been shown that the neurotransmitters neuroepinephrine and serotonin are severely diminished in patients that are suffering with acute cases of bulimia and anorexia nervosa. These are the same neurotransmitters that function abnormally when individuals are struggling with depression. This correlation has led some researchers to surmise that there could be a link between eating disorders and depression. In addition to creating feelings of emotional and physical satisfaction, the neurotransmitter serotonin also is responsible for feelings of fullness after eating.

Additional brain chemicals have been examined for their potential role in eating disorders. The hormones cortisol and vasopressin have been observed at elevated levels in individuals with eating disorders like bulimia nervosa and anorexia. Both cortisol and vasopressin are released in response to emotional and physical stressors. Heightened levels of these hormones may be contributing factors to some dysfunction experienced by individuals struggling with eating disorders. Other research has indicated that individuals with bulimia and anorexia have heightened levels of the brain chemicals peptide-YY and neuropeptide-Y. Tests of laboratory animals have indicated that these chemicals can stimulate eating behavior. Also, the hormone cholecystokinin (CCK) has been shown to be diminished in women who are struggling with bulimia. Likewise, this hormone has caused laboratory animals to experience fullness and stop eating.

Environmental conditions reinforce the practice of an eating disorder like anorexia, bulimia or compulsive overeating. We live in a society that reinforces the idea to be happy and successful we must be thin. Today, you cannot read a magazine or newspaper, turn on the television, listen to the radio, or shop at the mall without being assaulted with the message that fat is bad. During adolescence, a particularly vulnerable time to the development of an eating disorder, the influence of peers becomes important. Self monitoring and comparing ourselves to others becomes central to our psyche. It’s common for individuals with eating disorders to have experienced a background of peer teasing and pressure to conform. As bodies change and develop, body image is strongly affected by how others react to these changes. Other sociological issues that can affect body image include dysfunctional families, sexual abuse, physical abuse, domineering coaches and controlling relationships.

Eating disordered behavior can be seen as a survival mechanism, in many cases a way to express something that the individual hasn’t found another way to express. Much like how alcoholics depend on alcohol, individuals with eating disorders like bulimia or compulsive overeating syndrome use restricting, bingeing or purging behaviors as a way of coping with overwhelming emotions. Eating disordered individuals often use their disorders to gain a partial sense of control over their seemingly out-of-control lives. Some psychological issues that often correlate with eating disorders include depression, low self-esteem, damaged self-worth, problems communicating with family members, or an incapability to manage emotions. These psychological factors can contribute to the manifestation of eating disorders.