A complex relationship among genes, hormones, and social factors can lead to eating disorders in women. New research shows that during the menstrual cycle, ovarian hormones turn genetic risk on and off in the body.
“Our previous studies were some of the first to examine shifts in eating disorder risk across the menstrual cycle,” says Kelly Klump, professor of psychology at Michigan State University.
“We found that changes in ovarian hormones drive increases in binge eating and emotional eating across the cycle, which can be highly problematic for women, particularly since the cycle reoccurs monthly.”
Researchers have now zeroed in on how and why this phenomenon occurs. Ovarian hormones act on genes within the brain and body to trigger physical changes in the body. These hormones can change genes that trigger psychological symptoms in women, such as emotional eating.
Not only did rates of emotional eating change across the menstrual cycle, but also the degree to which genes influenced eating patterns changed as well, Klump says. This increase in genetic effects was remarkable considering that it occurs over the course of just days, not months or years.
“Following the same sample of women across the menstrual cycle, we found that the influence of genes on a binge eating behavior was up to four times higher in the high risk phases of the menstrual cycle than the low risk phases,” Klump says.
The study, published in the journal Psychological Medicine, expands on previous research on genetic influences of eating disorders. Her lab was the first to discover that ovarian hormones have an effect on genetic risk for psychiatric disorders in women.
With this information, treatment providers can now pinpoint specific days within a patient’s cycle where risk of these behaviors is highest, allowing them to provide more targeted treatment options.
These same types of genetic effects might be present for other disorders that occur more often in women, such as depression and anxiety, Klump says.
“This may be the tip of the iceberg in terms of the role of ovarian hormones in genetic risk for mental illness.”
Other researchers from Michigan State, Florida State University, Virginia Commonwealth University, and University of Virginia contributed to the study. The National Institute for Mental Health funded the work.