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Anorexia Causes & Triggers

Anorexia nervosa is a malignant brain disorder with a high mortality rate. And recent clinical studies utilizing identical twins have variably estimated that anorexia has a heritability rate between 56% and 70%. By comparison, the heritability of height is 90%. In other words, a person's genetic inheritance is largely responsible for a biological vulnerability to anorexia. Therefore, like all genetically-based illnesses, genetic factors associated with anorexia must be present for the illness to manifest itself. Or put another way, if a person did not have a genetic vulnerability they would be incapable of developing true anorexia nervosa, regardless of exposure to environmental factors.

But like many genetically-based illnesses, anorexia's non-genetic (i.e. environmental) triggers are not well understood. Why, for example, do some siblings develop anorexia but others do not? Episodes of extreme dieting, excessive/obsessive exercise or laxative abuse leading to rapid weight loss have been identified as possible triggers. Developmental changes (e.g. puberty) that result in alterations to neurochemical or sudden hormonal imbalances in the brain may also play a role. Less certain is the role of media and popular culture in the development of anorexia. While this is widely reported as a suspected trigger, no scientific evidence to date exists to support such claims.

Equally, there is no evidence to suggest that sexual trauma or explanations relying on “underlying psychological factors” have any scientific merit. The stubborn fact remains we don't really understand what triggers anorexia in children. We may never know. But the crucial point for parents is that they don’t need to understand the “cause” in order to seek effective eating disorder treatment today. If your child has experienced unexplained weight loss, even if previously “chubby” or “heavy”, this is a cause for concern and immediate investigation. Please note: unexplained weight loss in children is not normal. The longer a life-threatening eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa goes undiagnosed and untreated, the worse the long term prognosis for recovery. Please see our anorexia treatment page for more information on steps to take if you are concerned. And take a look at our video about how to talk to your pediatricians about your concerns.

One thing is certain: parents don't cause anorexia and children don't choose to have it.

If you are seeking eating disorder help or would like more information about any of our eating disorder programs, call us on 503 249 8851 and ask for our intake coordinator. For your convenience, you may also submit an online request below. We answer all requests promptly.

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