Women have it tough.

Every month, we face a recurring cycle that throws our bodies out of whack and makes some of us really grumpy. To many women, the recurring cycle becomes routine. But to some, this biological function triggers a series of events that can cause them to suffer. The ovarian hormones that drive the menstrual cycle appear to be flipping switches on the genes that make some women more vulnerable to eating disorder symptoms.

In previous research, we determined that there are significant biological risk factors for eating disorders. My lab was the first to show hormonal effects on genetic risk for psychiatric disorders in girls and women.

Now, our lab has confirmed that ovarian hormones drive increases in binge eating and emotional eating across the menstrual cycle. This is problematic because as the cycle reoccurs each month, so does the biological drive to engage in these symptoms.

But now we know how and why this is happening, and we have caught the master conductor – ovarian hormones – in the act. Ovarian hormones are responsible for many developmental events, such as puberty. During and after puberty, hormones act on genes within the brain and body to trigger physical changes in the body.

For the first time, our work shows that these hormones also change gene functions that can trigger psychological symptoms in women. For women at genetic risk for eating disorders, that can mean increased chance of binge eating or emotional eating.

Following the same sample of women across the menstrual cycle, we found that the degree to which genes influence a woman’s emotional eating was up to four times higher in the high-risk phases of the menstrual cycle than the low risk phases. That is significant! Also consider, this is happening within days, not months or years as puberty does.

This research will hopefully lead us to better treatment options for women that suffer from eating disorder symptoms. If providers can pinpoint the days when binge eating risks are highest, perhaps those providers can give extra support and help them get through those difficult days.

It is likely that ovarian hormones are at play for other disorders and symptoms that vary across a woman’s cycle, such as anxiety and depression. We are likely only seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding the role of hormones in genetic risk for mental illness.

But we are closer than ever before, and we will get there. The women and girls that suffer from these real disorders deserve it.



The full paper, published in Psychological Medicine, “Changes in genetic risk for emotional eating across the menstrual cycle: a longitudinal study” by K. L. Klump, B. A. Hildebrandt, S. M. O’Connor, P. K. Keel, M. Neale, C. L. Sisk, S. Boker and S. A. Burt is can be viewed here free of charge until 31st August 2015.

***Kelly Klump is a Michigan State University Foundation Endowed Professor in the Department of Psychology.

This blog post originally appeared on Kelly Klump’s website.

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