Eating Disorders Underlying Causes: Nutrient Deficiencies, Environment and Epigenetics

By Samantha Gilbert, FNC, CHNP, CNC     Last updated on September 23rd, 2021

Eating Disorders Underlying Causes: Nutrient Deficiencies, Environment and Epigenetics

The topic of eating disorders is near and dear to my heart, not only because of my own past struggle but also because of the hundreds of patients I work with (many of them young girls) that are significantly impacted by these debilitating conditions.

Our focus should be good health, not looking a particular way, or fitting into a specific dress size to be accepted by a world that perpetuates this delusion. I spent most of my life caught up in this game and it only led to an even greater decline in my health. If you’ve embarked on a New Year’s plan that includes severe restriction in any way, I encourage you to reconsider and instead try a path that honors your unique biochemistry. Special thanks to my personal physician, Dr. Judith Bowman Co-founder of Mensah Medical, for her insights here.

Eating Disorders: Basic Facts

In the United States, about 20 million women and 10 million men will suffer a clinically significant eating disorder in their lifetime, and about 50% of them will meet the criteria for depression (I’ve yet to work with a patient that did not also have depression as part of their eating disorder). Eating disorders are an epidemic in this country and are six times more prevalent than Alzheimer’s disease and nearly ten times more prevalent than autism. There are many misconceptions as to what causes eating disorders. Many people believe it’s a mind over matter issue. Sadly, this false belief hinders a patient’s healing and couldn’t be further from the truth.

Eating Disorders Underlying Causes: Nutrient Deficiencies, Environmental Triggers, Genetics and Epigenetics

Eating disorders and nutrient deficiencies go hand in hand. Many people think nutrient deficiencies are caused by the eating disorder, especially in the case of anorexia nervosa and bulimia, but that’s not a correct way of thinking.

The truth is that there are very strong genetic, environmental, and epigenetic factors that all play a role in the development of anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and other forms of disordered eating such as binge eating disorder. It took me over 25 years to figure this out for myself. In our clinical research, we’ve seen specific biochemical imbalance patterns, especially with the anorexic population. Most of them tend to be undermethylated and severely zinc deficient.

There are also emotional components (also considered environmental triggers) in the treatment of eating disorders that are necessary to help retrain thought patterns and emotional triggers. Anorexia and bulimia need careful individualized targeted nutrient and dietary therapy as well as intense psychotherapy, cognitive, or behavioral therapy to successfully overcome.

Onset of Eating Disorders

In most cases, eating disorders and nutrient deficiencies begin in early adolescence when pressures are put on a child to diet by peers, coaches, cultural mores, or influences in the home. Body dissatisfaction can start as early as age six (I was five), and often leads to excessive dieting. Puberty is a dangerous time for dieting because the body is rapidly growing and changing. Adolescents require at least 2,500 calories per day. Anorexic teens will often cut that amount in half. As their bodies become deficient in vital nutrients, they become hypoglycemic and begin to crave only junk foods high in salt and sugars. This starvation dieting can develop into an eating disorder when their nutrient levels hit the danger zone and begin to compromise normal cognitive functioning.

Eating Disorder and Epigenetics

A strong factor connected to eating disorders has to do with epigenetics, which is how our genes are influenced by our environment and how those changes can be passed on from generation to generation. Environmental triggers (stress, abuse, poor diet, unclean air, and water) can directly impact our genes through the DNA methylation process and this can turn on or off genetic influences that can enable eating disorders to take root. Nutrient and dietary therapy can reverse common urges in patients with eating disorders by balancing methylation pathways with nutrients that naturally help the body to re-balance itself.

Eating Disorders and Nutrient Deficiencies: Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia is associated with the maintenance of low weight and fear of weight gain. Undermethylation is a variable that is highly prevalent in people with this destructive disorder, which is associated with the highest mortality rates of any psychiatric illness.

Anorexia affects about 2% of women in their lifetime. Another surprising statistic, an estimated 10 to 15 percent of patients with anorexia or bulimia are male. Between the ages of 15 and 24, suffering from anorexia nervosa means you’re 12 times more likely to die. It’s clearly a serious disorder, but there are many myths about what causes it.

Anorexia is an addiction disorder that manifests itself in undermethylated individuals who use food control to master their desire for the perfect body. Nutritive therapy treatment, combined with intense psychotherapy, cognitive, or behavioral therapy typically takes 6 months to a year for patient recovery and requires ongoing care to maintain wellness. Anorexic patients who are extremely compliant with their individualized protocol, and the prognosis for patients who have used our protocols in conjunction with psychotherapy, cognitive, or behavioral therapy is very good.

Anorexia is very often correlated with undermethylation. And it’s very common in females with anorexia and even a few males. Perfectionism is directed toward not seeing oneself as perfect enough and from a biochemical perspective, is a form of OCD. In general, undermethylators are highly driven people, focused on perfectionism. They are straight “A” students, most with higher-level degrees, and very career-oriented.

Eating Disorders and Nutrient Deficiencies: Bulimia

Binging and vomiting, two classic behaviors in bulimic patients, trigger endorphins that release a feel-good sensation in the brain. This euphoric feeling is desired in the patient because they are often fighting a biochemical imbalance. With bulimia, there is no statistical pattern of one biochemical imbalance. Bulimics can have a wide range of combined biochemical imbalances. I often see overmethylation with low or high copper toxicity or undermethylation with copper and zinc imbalances. Another contributing factor is Pyrrole disorder, a stress disorder in which the body excretes large amounts of zinc and vitamin B6, nutrients that are critical for healthy neurotransmitter regulation, among many other important body functions.

Eating Disorder Symptoms

Nutrient deficiencies may manifest as symptoms long before the eating disorder surfaces: a loss of appetite, intestinal pain, constipation, chest pain, anxiety, depression, and issues with sleeping. As the imbalanced diet continues, nutrient levels reach dangerous lows and the symptoms of anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder surface.

Zinc deficiency is one imbalance often seen in anorexia, which also causes appetite loss and a lowered sense of taste and smell. It’s not surprising that we have such a large adolescent population with eating disorders because it’s during these years that zinc is vital for the growth, development, and hormonal changes necessary to thrive.

Please note taking zinc alone does not reverse the condition and that toxic levels of zinc can be reached without medical supervision. Additionally, don’t assume your biochemical make-up without proper diagnostic testing and an assessment with a qualified clinician.

If you know someone who struggles with an eating disorder, please share this post. If you struggle, please share your experience in the comments below. It is through sharing your story that we create community, eliminate guilt and shame, and bring about healing.


7 thoughts on “Eating Disorders Underlying Causes: Nutrient Deficiencies, Environment and Epigenetics”

  1. I haven’t found relief from 30+ years of Bulimia until I started a “carnivore” diet. Rich fatty beef, chicken hearts, liver wurst, home cooked beef bone broth with fatty and marrow bits, raw milk, goat cheese, free range chicken -skin on, fried eggs from my adorable pet chickens, raw butter, Real Salt and a little fruit, honey, slice of sprouted bread or kombucha to keep the blood sugar AOK. Grass fed gelatin jello. Its a trip to eat this way. I ate fried eggs in beef tallow and bacon instead of binging…killed the cravings. Its not for everyone but it’s working so far. Weight is the same. Focus is on how much nutrients I can get in per bite.
    Regardless -adopt a sweet breed of chicken that you can hug and give them loving care every day. The fresh warm eggs will nourish you and their poop will nourishments your garden too.

  2. My friends have all been talking about people they know who have started eating very disorderly and I became concerned enough to want to know more. It really helped when you stated that depression and anxiety issues could lead to nutrition imbalance and soon enough eating disorders because I have heard of people getting bombarded with work stress to the point of succumbing to binge eating. If ever I personally knew someone going through this difficult condition I would definitely help them look for a therapist and get it treated any way they can.

  3. OMG this totally freaks me out as just about everything I have read on these pages is my history on paper. This obviously started earlier than I thought… things often I have forgotten about. Now though even when I have done my best to guard my daughter from it she appears to be on the same track of sorts… the only thing I never had was the straight a’s in school (typical) but there was much more to that and now i am a striver and have a degree but that is another story. You are not in Australia though are you. Can we get help from you and see someone here still? thanks

  4. Can you elaborate a bit more on OCD.I was diagnosed with this and at present I am on Cibralta, but I think it is not helping much.
    Thank you

  5. You described my daughter to a ‘t’.
    Do we have to go through Dr. Mensah first or can we get the nutrient therapy recommendation directly from you along with nutrition recommendation?

      1. Hi Kyren,
        My name is Mary and I live in Australia too. I have battled anorexia for 31 years. I have been studying the genetics of Anorexia for many years now and am involved in the Anorexia Nervosa Genetic Initiative at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research. I am also the founder of RED HOUSE Australia
        Not sure where you live but you can get this kind of help from Dr. Leanne Barron here in Brisbane. She is very hard to get an appointment with but worth the wait. She helped me immensely when 30 years of psychiatric treatment could not.
        Hope this helps,
        Kind regards

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