According to a new study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, people with alcohol dependence may be more genetically susceptible to developing certain eating disorders, and vice versa.
"In clinical practice, it's been observed that individuals with eating disorders also have high rates of alcohol abuse and dependence," Melissa A. Munn-Chernoff, Ph.D., the study's first author, told Medical Xpress. "Other studies have focused on the genetic connections between alcohol dependence and eating disorders, but all of those studies looked only at women. Ours was the first to include men."
The study gathered data from nearly 6,000 adult twins and found that common genetic factors contribute to alcoholism and eating disorder symptoms such as binge eating, purging, self-induced vomiting and laxative abuse. According to the study’s findings, genes accounted for 38 percent to 53 percent of the risk of developing those disorders.
Study participants were surveyed about their alcohol use and binge eating. Nearly 25 percent of the men and 6 percent of women had been alcohol dependent at some point in their lives. Almost 11 percent of these same men and 13 percent of the women had experience with binge eating. About 14 percent of the women had tried purging or taken laxatives.
Although scientists were unable to determine which genes were involved, they did find a strong genetic correlation between the two disorders. On a statistical scale that runs from zero, with no shared genes, to 1, with all genes shared, the genetic correlation between binge eating and alcohol dependence was statistically significant at .26.
"Those numbers suggest that there are shared genetic risk factors for these behaviors, such as purging and fasting," Munn-Chernoff said. "It appears that some genes that influence alcohol dependence also influence binge eating in men and women, and compensatory behaviors in women."
The findings may lead to a greater awareness on the part of healthcare providers to understand that a patient could be experiencing both symptoms simultaneously.
“When you go to an eating disorder treatment center, they don’t often ask questions about alcoholism. And when you go for alcoholism treatment, they don’t generally ask questions about eating disorder symptoms,” Munn-Chernoff said told Health24. “If centers could be aware of that and perhaps treat both problems at the same time, it would be a big help.”