The menstrual cycle can be a difficult time for keeping your health in check. Hormonal changes — not to mention discomfort, distress and downright pain — mean that many women turn to comfort eating to improve their mood. But, like all emotional responses, these have a physical cause. Now researchers in Michigan have taken a closer look at the influence hormones have on women's bodies at a genetic level.
The team at Michigan State University looked at the relationship between genes, hormones and external social factors and showed how their complex interaction can lead to eating disorders and other psychological problems for women. The team was led by Professor Kelly Klump who says that, during the menstrual cycle, ovarian hormones act like an orchestra's "master conductor" — turning genetic risk on and off. Hormones are the body's chemical messengers, affecting growth, sexual function, metabolism and mood.
When the scientists looked at their genetic role, they found that ovarian hormones act on genes within the brain and body to trigger physical changes. These particular hormones can affect the genes that trigger psychological symptoms in women — such as emotional eating. "Our previous studies were some of the first to examine shifts in eating disorder risk across the menstrual cycle," said Klump. "We found that changes in ovarian hormones drive increases in binge eating and emotional eating across the cycle, which can be highly problematic for women, particularly since the cycle reoccurs monthly."
According to Klump, the rate of emotional eating can change across the menstrual cycle, correlating with the degree to which genes-influenced eating patterns change. This increase in genetic effect is remarkable, she argues, considering that it occurs over the course of just days, not months or years. "Following the same sample of women across the menstrual cycle, we found that the influence of genes on a binge eating behavior was up to four times higher in the high risk phases of the menstrual cycle than the low risk phases," she says.
The study — published in the journal Psychological Medicine — expands on previous research on the genetic influences of eating disorders. Klump's team was the first to discover that ovarian hormones have an effect on genetic risk for some psychiatric disorders in women. With this information, treatment providers are now able to pinpoint specific days within a patient's cycle where risk of significant psychological response is highest, allowing them to provide more targeted treatment options.
These same types of genetic effects might be present for other disorders that occur more often in women, such as depression and anxiety. "This may be the tip of the iceberg in terms of the role of ovarian hormones in genetic risk for mental illness," Klump says.