Several risk factors may play a role in the development of anorexia nervosa, including social pressures, other mental health conditions, and family history and genetics.

Anorexia nervosa, which people may refer to as anorexia, is an eating disorder in which a person loses more weight than healthcare professionals consider healthy for their age and height.

A person with the condition typically avoids or severely restricts their food intake. They may also over-exercise, be fearful of gaining weight, and have a distorted view of how their body looks.

In this article, we will discuss if anorexia is hereditary, risk factors for anorexia, treatment for anorexia, and when a person needs to consider consulting a doctor.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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The genes a person inherits may play an important role in the development of anorexia.

Some research suggests that someone is more likely to develop anorexia if they have a family history of the condition.

Additionally, other research indicates that genetic factors may predispose people to anorexia and other eating disorders. If a person inherits atypical variations of certain genes, they may be more likely to develop anorexia. These genes include:

  • Serotonergic genes: Theseplay a role in mood, food intake, and regulating body weight.
  • Dopaminergic genes: These may help regulate emotions, thinking processes, reward-related behavior, and motor activities such as eating.
  • Opioid genes:These may help regulate how much a person eats, how sensitive they are to pain, and how vulnerable they are to addictive behaviors.
  • Appetite regulation genes: These may help control how hungry a person feels.

Research also suggests that there is a strong genetic link between a person having anorexia and developing other mental health conditions, such as other eating disorders, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

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Anorexia can affect people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. However, females are more likely to develop the condition than males.

There is not one sole cause of anorexia. Alongside genetics, age, and gender, there are several risk factors that may lead to the development of the condition, including:

  • living with other mental health conditions, such as anxiety, or developing an anxiety disorder as a child
  • experiencing issues with eating as an infant or young child
  • having certain social and cultural standards about beauty and health
  • focusing a lot of attention on how they look, their body weight, and their shape
  • having a negative self-image
  • feeling a need to be perfect or being overly focused on rules

There are several treatment options available for anorexia. A doctor can help a person decide which treatments might be suitable for them and devise a treatment plan.

Some treatments for anorexia include:

  • Nutrition therapy: This may help a person reach an optimal weight for their age and height. Doctors can help them follow a balanced eating plan to ensure they get all the necessary nutrients. In some cases, a person may need to receive nutrition therapy as part of a residential program in the hospital. This is so doctors can help them more closely with their food intake and monitor their overall health.
  • Support groups: These may help alongside other treatments. Support groups can be a safe place for someone to share their story and to gain reassurance from hearing other experiences.
  • Psychotherapy: This is a type of counseling in which a therapist may help a person talk through and change any negative thoughts and behaviors around eating, weight loss, and body image. A person may have psychotherapy sessions one-on-one with a therapist or in a group setting.
  • Medications: If a person with anorexia is also experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety, a doctor may prescribe medications to manage these symptoms, such as antidepressants.

If a person thinks they may be experiencing anorexia, they need to contact a doctor as soon as possible. Anorexia can lead to various health problems due to the lack of nutrients in a person’s body, some of which may be life threatening.

A healthcare professional may ask a person questions about their eating habits, family history, and any symptoms they are experiencing. An individual may also need further tests, such as a physical exam, urinalysis, and blood tests, to rule out any other health conditions that may lead to severe weight loss.

Some noticeable symptoms of anorexia may include:

  • severe weight loss
  • constantly thinking about food, calories, weight gain, or dieting
  • being fearful about gaining weight
  • developing secretive behaviors around food
  • having constant negative thoughts about how they look
  • following a strict, rigid exercise regimen
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • abdominal cramps
  • changes in menstruation
  • muscle weakness
  • thinning hair
  • dental problems
  • changes in the nails and skin
  • fainting
  • sleep problems
  • wounds healing slowly, and other signs of impaired immune system function

Help is available

Eating disorders can severely affect the quality of life of people living with these conditions and those close to them. Early intervention and treatment greatly improve the likelihood of recovery.

Anyone who suspects they or a loved one may have an eating disorder can contact the National Alliance for Eating Disorders, which offers a daytime helpline staffed by licensed therapists and an online search tool for treatment options.

For general mental health support at any time, people can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 24 hours a day at 1-800-662-4357 (or 1-800-487-4889 for TTY).

Many other resources are also available, including:

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Research suggests that the cause of anorexia nervosa is a mixture of several factors, including social pressures and genetics. Studies show that someone with a family history of anorexia is more likely to develop the condition. Additionally, inheriting atypical variations of certain genes may predispose a person to anorexia.

Other risk factors for the condition include having a negative self-image and living with other mental health conditions.

Treatment for anorexia may include nutritional therapy, psychotherapy, and medications. A person needs to contact a doctor if they are experiencing any symptoms of anorexia, such as severe weight loss, fatigue, abdominal cramps, and persistent thoughts about diet, food, exercise, and body image.