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The three main causes for both anorexia and bulimia are psychological, biological, and environmental factors. The biological causes can affect people with first-degree relatives with an eating disorder. Those people may be more likely to develop an eating disorder, suggesting a possible genetic link. Although it’s not yet clear which genes are involved, there may be genetic changes that make some people more vulnerable to developing eating disorders.
Some people may have a genetic tendency toward perfectionism, sensitivity and perseverance, which are all traits associated with anorexia and bulimia. It’s also possible that a deficiency in the brain chemical serotonin may play a role. Being overweight as a child or teen may increase the risk. Scientists are still researching possible biochemical or biological causes of eating disorders. In some individuals with eating disorders, certain chemicals in the brain that control hunger, appetite, and digestion have been found to be unbalanced.
The exact meaning and implications of these imbalances remains under investigation. Studies done by B. Engel, N.S. Reiss, and M. Dombeck (2007) suggest that the hypothalamus of bulimics may not trigger a normal satiation response, feeling full or finished, so even after a meal these individuals do not feel full. The binge behavior of bulimics may also be a response to low serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin affects mood and social behavior, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory, sexual desire, and function. Researchers in London found that anorexics have an overproduction of serotonin, which can cause a continual state of severe stress and anxiety. Reducing their intake of calories, which in turn leads to decreased levels of serotonin in the brain, may result in a sense of calmness. Anorexia nervosa can cause altered levels of dopamine in their brains.
Dopamine disturbances can cause hyperactivity, repetition of behavior, and a decreased sense of pleasure. This neurotransmitter also affects reward-motivated behavior. Improper levels of dopamine may explain why anorexics feel intensely driven to lose weight yet feel little pleasure in shedding pounds. Stress triggers the production and release of a hormone called cortisol. Increased cortisol levels results in decreased appetite. Biological factors are just one of the causes related to eating disorders. Psychological and emotional issues, such as anxiety disorder or low self-esteem, can contribute to eating disorders.
Those with eating disorder experience feelings of inadequacy or lack of control in life, depression, anxiety, anger, stress or loneliness. Interpersonal problems such as troubled personal relationships, difficulty expressing emotions and feelings, history of being teased or ridiculed based on size, and a history of physical or sexual abuse can all cause eating disorders. Individuals with eating disorders are often lack the skills to tolerate negative experiences. K. Westin (2015) explains that behaviors such as restricting, purging, binging and excessive exercise often develop as a response to emotional pain, conflict, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, stress or trauma. In the absence of more positive coping skills, the eating disorder behaviors may provide acute relief from distress but quickly lead to more physical and psychological harm. Instead of helping the eating disorder, these behaviors only serve to continue a dangerous cycle of emotional dysregulation and numbing feelings. These types of physiological effects can be a huge contributor to the causes of an eating disorder. The environmental pressure fuels a desire to be thin. Using media and television, the modern Western culture emphasizes thinness. Success and worth are often equated with being thin.
Cultural pressures that glorifies thinness or muscularity and place value on obtaining the perfect body image leads to eating disorders. The narrow definitions of beauty that include only women and men of specific body weights and shapes contribute to the unhealthy view of weight in the modern world. Today, people value others based on physical appearance and not inner qualities and strengths. An average US child watches 15-20 hours of television per week and is thus bombarded with approximately 30,000 television commercials each year. In these television images, approximately 23% of the female characters are underweight (Engel, B., Reiss, N. S., & Dombeck, M., 2007). Thus, they often begin to believe that being thin makes them popular, successful and happy. The media presents a highly idealized and very much unrealistic fantasy version of reality. These environmental pressures cause viewers to desire the thinness and fame they see all over the media, and thus are a major cause of eating disorders.
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