Scientists Identify Possible Hormonal Cause for Bulimia

Individuals with binge-eating disorder bulimia nervosa often develop the disorder during the years of early adolescence, at a time when self-confidence and self-esteem are sometimes at an all-time low. Intense comparison between peers and with images in the media can create a distorted body image, and often disordered eating behaviors can follow.

A new study from Sweden identifies a possible cause for the emergence of eating disorders in young women. The study finds that as many as 30 percent of women struggling to overcome bulimia may be suffering from an imbalance of sex hormones.

Dr. Sabine Nassén presented the work as her PhD thesis. The research was conducted at the Department of Woman and Child Health at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. The Karolinska Institute is the largest medical training and research centre in that country.

The study’s results indicate that a large number of women with bulimia also show a higher level of testosterone in their systems. Testosterone is the male sex hormone, and may explain the occurrence of the disordered eating behaviors. Dr. Nassén says that the results may indicate a hormonal explanation for bulimia, rather than an indication of any mental illness.

While research has been exploring the various genetic and environmental aspects of eating disorders, the identification of a hormone imbalance among nearly a third of bulimia sufferers examined may aid in development of a new type of treatment for eating disorders. The participants who had an over-abundance of testosterone and an insufficient level of estrogen may have been pre-disposed to develop disordered eating patterns.

Testosterone is believed to cause a person to have increased hunger and crave high-calorie foods that are rich in sugar and fat.

In the study, 21 bulimic women were given estrogen-dominated oral contraceptives. After 3 months, half of the women reported feeling less hungry and experiencing fewer and less intense cravings for fatty and sugary foods. 3 of the women were reported as experiencing a complete cessation of disordered behavior as a result of using oral contraceptives.

Dr. Nassén believes that this very strong reaction to the use of oral contraceptives may introduce hormone treatment as a viable alternative to cognitive behavioral treatment for sufferers of eating disorders.

Bulimia is diagnosed as a psychological disorder and is commonly treated with psychotherapy, and specifically with cognitive behavior therapy. Identifying bulimia as a problem that in some cases may have its initiation in hormone imbalance may provide a host of new opportunities for effectively treating the disorder.

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