It has long been known that eating disorders have both psychological and physiological components. However, new research indicates that the physical aspect may be more complex than previously thought and what is transpiring in the intestines of those with anorexia may have psychological ramifications.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill discovered that those with anorexia have very different microbial communities residing inside their guts compared to healthy individuals. They have fewer different types of the bacteria that are responsible for digestive health and immunity. This means that the intestinal community of those with anorexia is much less diverse. In turn, this bacterial imbalance is associated with some of the psychological symptoms related to the eating disorder.
Looking at a link between the gut bacteria and its relationship to weight regulation and behavior is nothing new; yet historically, these studies have been confined to the area of obesity. It was found that when the gut microbial communities of an obese person are put into germ-free mice, they gain more weight than mice that have been colonized with a gut microbiota from a lean individual.
To study this relationship in those with anorexia, a team of researchers collected fecal samples from 16 women with anorexia at admission to the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders and again at discharge. The samples proved significantly different. The first samples had fewer different types of bacteria, while the second samples, taken after weight restoration, showed that the microbial diversity had increased, but was still significantly less diverse than healthy individuals. Importantly, the mood of the patients also improved.
This is not to say a gut bacterial imbalance causes the symptoms of anorexia nervosa, including associated symptoms, such as anxiety and depression. But the nutritional deficits associated with anorexia and the subsequent gut disruption could contribute to the anxiety, depression, and further weight loss of people with the disorder.
The findings are compelling enough to cause the National Institutes of Mental Health to give the researchers a five-year, $2.5-million grant to further study the relationship between the gut microbiota and anorexia.
At Timberline Knolls, we applaud any research that may lead to greater understanding of anorexia, and ultimately, improved treatment options for those who struggle with this life-threatening disease.