Does excess oestrogen cause anorexia?

// 31 December 2007

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According to a report by The Times today, anorexia may be a condition incubated in the women by surplus oestrogen.

The investigation found that twin girls are at greater risk of developing the eating disorder, and boys who shared the womb with girl twins are ten times more susceptible to the condition.

Marco Procopio, a psychiatrist from the University of Sussex and one of the authors of the study in Archives of General Psychiatry, said:

“We know that women are ten times more likely to develop anorexia than men and this study goes a long way to explaining why. We know that oestrogen and other hormones can have a powerful effect on the body and it would seem that there is an ‘overexpression’ of oestrogen by the mother and the girl twin in some pregnancies. Oestrogen would be present in the amniotic fluid that bathes babies in the womb and would be swallowed by both the male and female twin. Oestrogen is needed in development of females but it is possible that too much affects the structure of the brain.”

These results bolster claims by US scientists that the brain of an anorexic functions differently to a non-anorexic, and that sufferers develop the condition owing to a genetic predisposition.

Dr Procopia believes that one day it will be possible to monitor pregnant women for higher than normal oestrogen levels to determine if an unborn baby is more susceptible to the illness. Size zero culture is commonly held responsible for the promotion of a negative body image and anorexia nervosa, but Procopia dismisses this claim:

“If that were the case, we would have many more anorexics…There might be an effect on some girls but I doubt if these are truly anorexic but more likely a passing phase.”

But can the media be absolved of all responsibility? Surely, whether one is naturally inclined to suffer with an eating disorder or not, it will only be realised if the surrounding enviornment is conducive to its development? If vulnerable young girls and women were not subject to images of stick thin models on a daily basis, would they begin to view food as the enemy? Probably not. Or at least they would not feel as forced to do so, even if their physical constitution means they are that way inclined.

Photo by echotek77, shared under a Creative Commons License

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