For women of any age, hormones seem to be an unescapable challenge. Hormones control who we are, what we think, how we feel and our overall emotional wellbeing. The link between our hormones and how we think about, or view food can be a tricky relationship. With all the changes going on inside of us, can the release of hormones play a role in disordered eating habits? Or are those habits formed in our genetics?
The role of hormones in eating disorders
The hormones estrogen and progesterone, produced in women’s ovaries, can trigger or bring to the surface existing genetic psychiatric disorders. The increase in the production and release of these hormones can also trigger emotional and binge eating during the menstrual cycle. This manifests in different ways for different women at different points in their cycles. High levels of estrogen and progesterone have been linked to cravings of sweet or salty food and emotional triggers, which can themselves develop into eating disorders.
Ovarian hormones play a role within the brain, specifically with turning on and off certain genes that control physical changes in the body, and the synthesis of serotonin in the brain. Since estrogen and progesterone hormones release every month, the connection can be made that they also control disordered eating habits—namely binge eating. With the repeated occurrence of this behavior month over month neural connections to disordered eating can be made thus influencing eating habits.
The role of genetics in eating disorders
Learning that hormones play a large role in influencing disordered eating behavior raises the question about the relationship between addiction, mental illness and genetics. It’s believed that if we acquire addictive genes we will be more likely to develop an addiction or mental illness during our lifetime. While there is science that supports this notion, anyone can form an addiction or mental illness regardless of genetic makeup.
Research shows, though, that 50 to 60 percent of the risk of developing alcohol addiction is genetically determined. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism goes on to demonstrate that a genetic link does increase the possibility of having an addiction even when an individual is not brought up in an addictive environment. Framing some eating disorders, like binge eating disorder, within the context of addiction can help explain the effect of genetics on eating disorders.
Eating disorders, like all forms of addiction, are not a choice but rather the result of a complex disease of the brain. Just as some of us are more predisposed to the increased release of estrogen and progesterone, our genetics can make us more or less likely to develop an eating disorder.
Breaking the cycle of disordered eating
Breaking the addictive cycle of disordered eating can be difficult, especially when facing hormonal triggers or genetic predisposition, but it is not impossible. There are ways to combat these back and forth cycles to ultimately adjust eating habits to a healthier diet.
The most important thing is stick to a regular eating schedule. Have set times during the day for when to eat meals, and make sure to stick to that schedule. It may be difficult to eat on that schedule at first, but even if you aren’t hungry for a full meal, try eating a small snack. Eating on a schedule will boost the metabolism ultimately making it work faster to use more energy from food.
Additionally, keeping a consistent eating schedule will adjust your body to crave food during specific times of the day. If hormones are released which causes you to not crave, or crave to the point of binging, your body will be used to the schedule you set for it. Hormonal triggers will thus have less of an impact on your eating habits.
Training your body to adjust to this eating schedule can be challenging, and just like any habit, it will take some time to get used to it. During this time, it is important to be patient and understanding with yourself about the change your body is going through.
If you are finding it difficult to fight hormonal cravings, try out these tips to stave them off and eat more mindfully:
- Accept the craving, and move on. Allow the thought to enter your mind, then let it leave as it is no longer serving a purpose for your wellbeing. Don’t try to ignore it or shove it away;
- Go for a walk when you’re feeling a craving and want a healthy distraction;
- Plan and prepare your meals in advance;
- Keep snacks that align with your eating menu nearby;
- Practice a hobby or activity that brings you peace;
- Call a friend or family member for support and to help keep you accountable.
The release of certain hormones can trigger our bodies to have potentially unhealthy food cravings, especially if we have a genetic predisposition. This can lead to habit-forming cycles, and ultimately an unhealthy relationship with food. Sticking to a regular food schedule can help break the unhealthy cycle of disordered eating.
If you are concerned that you or a loved one may have an eating disorder, contact Seeds of Hope or call 610-644-6464 to discuss treatment options.