Potential risk factors for eating disorders have been hard to pin down — but Kelly Klump, an eating disorder expert and a psychology professor at Michigan State University, may have found evidence of an underlying mechanism: the menstrual cycle.

Well, she may have found more evidence the menstrual cycle increases risk for eating disorder, since she’s previously studied this potential link. In fact, Klump’s lab was among the first to discover “ovarian hormones have an effect on genetic risk for psychiatric disorders in women.”  The present study, however, aims to better understand the how and the why of this process.

So Klump and her team followed the same sample of women across their menstrual cycle. The results showed “the influence of genes on binge eating behavior was up to four times higher in the high risk phases of the menstrual cycle, but the degree to which genes influence eating patterns changed as well.” This is a big deal because these changes occur within days, not months or years, she explained in a press release.

The way Klump sees it is ovarian hormones are the “master conductor” of certain genes responsible for triggering physical changes in the body. The resulting gene changes have previously been linked to an increase in psychological symptoms, including but not limited to emotional eating. It stands to reason then if health care providers can pinpoint when these changes occur during a woman’s cycle, in which risk for disordered eating would be higher, allowing them to better treat their patients.

"Our previous studies were some of the first to examine shifts in eating disorder risk across the menstrual cycle," Klump said. "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. … This may be the tip of the iceberg in terms of the role of ovarian hormones in genetic risk for mental illness."

While eating disorders commonly affect women, millions of men and boys are at risk too, the National Eating Disorder Association reported. Some studies show an approximate 10 percent of eating disordered individuals seeking treatment are male, and others find this number to be much higher.

Whether we’re talking about men or women, the key to preventing potential eating problems is early intervention. If you suspect harmful eating habits, take it upon yourself to calmly initiate a conversation in a comfortable, safe place so as to say “I care about you,” inviting friends or family to open up without feeling shamed in the process.

Source: Klump KL, et al. Changes in genetic risk for emotional eating across the menstrual cycle: a longitudinal study.  Psychological Medicine. 2015.