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Alcohol Abuse and Eating Disorders May Share Genetic Links

Update Date: Aug 21, 2013 11:50 AM EDT

Genes involved in alcohol addiction might also be responsible for eating disorders, a new study suggests.

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis said that people with alcohol dependence may be more genetically prone to certain types of 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," study author Melissa A. Munn-Chernoff, PhD, said in a news release.

The study, which included data from nearly 6,000 adult twins in Australia, revealed that certain genetic factors that trigger alcoholism also trigger certain eating-disorder symptoms like binge eating and purging by self-induced vomiting or laxative abuse.

"By comparing the findings in identical and fraternal twins, we can develop estimates of how much of the difference in particular traits is due to genes or environment," Munn-Chernoff explained. "We found that some of the genes that influence alcohol dependence also influence binge eating in men and women."

All participants filled out surveys about their alcohol use and binge eating.  However, only female twins were asked about compensatory behaviors such as purging or using laxatives and diuretics.

The study revealed that nearly 25 percent of men and 6 percent of women had been alcohol dependent at some point, and almost 11 percent of these same men and 13 percent of the women had experienced problems with binge eating.  The findings also showed that 14 percent of the women had engaged in purging or laxative-or diuretic-abuse.

Among all participants, binge eating and alcohol dependence was statistically significant and compensatory behaviors and alcohol dependence was statistically significant among women.

"Those numbers suggest that there are shared genetic risk factors for these behaviors, such as purging and fasting," said Munn-Chernoff. "It appears that some genes that influence alcohol dependence also influence binge eating in men and women, and compensatory behaviors in women."

In light of the latest findings, researchers say that doctors and therapists should be aware that alcohol dependence and eating disorders can occur together.

"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," she said. "If centers could be aware of that and perhaps treat both problems at the same time, that would be a big help."

Researchers said the next step is to see if the findings also apply to different ethnicities because the latest study comprised of mostly Caucasians.  Researchers also want to identify the actual genes that contribute both to alcohol dependence and eating-disorder symptoms.

The findings are published in the September issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

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