News | Published February 25, 2013 | Written by Kristie Kaufman, MD, pediatrics, Mount Nittany Physician Group

What Causes an Eating Disorder?

There are a number of factors that can cause an eating disorder like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, but one factor seems to be genetic. A study from Maudsley Hospital in London and at the University of Pittsburgh have suggested that family members who share a variation in the serotonin gene (high or low levels), are more likely to have an eating disorder than someone with typical levels of serotonin.

Serotonin is a brain chemical involved in communication between the mind and body, including hunger, anxiety, depression, anger and perception. It seems those with anorexia have an overproduction of serotonin and experience a constant sense of anxiety. Conversely, bulimic patients had an underproduction of serotonin, causing more negative moods and more of a need for exactness.

Anorexia nervosa is a life-threatening eating disorder that is characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. The disorder is diagnosed when a person weighs at least 15 percent less than his or her normal body weight.

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by binge eating and engaging in inappropriate ways of counteracting the bingeing (using laxatives or purging for example), in order to prevent weight gain.

Working with a caring, dedicated team of healthcare professionals is often the first necessary step on the road to recovery. If you think you might have an eating disorder, or  know someone who does, please meet with your healthcare provider to have your health evaluated medically, psychologically and nutritionally. This evaluation should help develop a sound understanding of the eating disorder you may have and best treatment options.