The question of what causes eating disorders has puzzled the medical community since “wasting disease” was first described in the 17th century. Today, researchers and clinicians agree that, in addition to psychosocial and environmental risk factors, there is a strong biological basis to these disorders. Now, new data from a Massachusetts General Hospital researcher suggests that exposure to common childhood infections, such as strep throat or bronchitis, may significantly raise a person’s risk of developing anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and other eating disorders.
“Infections, by and large, have typical behaviors associated with them, and among those most commonly reported is loss of appetite.”
Results of the population-based study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, found that infections that required hospitalization or treatment with anti-infective medications, such as antibiotics, antifungals or antivirals, increased the risk of developing an eating disorder by as much as 39%. The multi-institutional study, which analyzed the health histories of more than 500,000 adolescent girls in Denmark, also found that recurrent infections and repeated treatment increased the risk.
Infections and Behavior
“Infections and inflammation more broadly have been recognized to play a role in psychiatric diseases like schizophrenia, but this has been less explored in eating disorders,” says Lauren Breithaupt, PhD, a clinical psychologist in the Mass General Eating Disorder Clinical and Research Program, and lead author of the study. “We’re hoping that a better understanding of the relationship between the immune system and disordered eating will help identify a mechanism behind the increased risk and biochemical changes we see happening.”
As an observational study, the findings don’t point to a single cause or effect, but one possible explanation, according to Dr. Breithaupt, is that the infection or treatment of the infection disrupts the gut microbiome, which in turn alters the brain’s neurobiological reward system. Another possibility is the body’s own inflammatory response. Inflammatory proteins have been shown to cause changes in behavior, such as loss of appetite.
“Infections, by and large, have typical behaviors associated with them, and among those most commonly reported is loss of appetite,” Dr. Breithaupt says. “If you’re already at risk for an eating disorder, this period of no appetite could have a priming effect.” Although more research is needed, Dr. Breithaupt is encouraged the findings further enforce the biological nature of the disease.
Eating Disorder Stereotype
“Eating disorders have long been seen as social constructs — think of the stereotype of the wealthy white girl who isn’t eating because she wants to look a certain way,” says Dr. Breithaupt. “It’s taken a lot of evidence — more than most other mental illnesses — to blow that stereotype out of the water. We now know that the rates are similar across the world and across cultures. We’re even seeing that there may not be as big a gender discrepancy as we previously thought.”
Despite mounting biological evidence, there is still a great deal of confusion in the medical community about how to diagnose and treat eating disorders. Dr. Breithaupt is hopeful that the team’s findings can lead to increased awareness of the signs and symptoms and that more hospitals and treatment centers adopt a more scientific approach to treating these diseases.
The Role of Philanthropy
“The Eating Disorders Clinical and Research Program at Mass General offers gold standard evidence-based treatment for eating disorders, but we receive so many referrals per year that unfortunately we can’t treat every patient who seeks services,” she says. “That’s why philanthropy is so important to the growth of our program. The work that we do is often funded by individuals and families who have been touched by these diseases.”
The other key to advancing the understanding and treatment of eating disorders, Dr. Breithaupt says, is education.
“In order to identify biological markers, we need larger sample sizes and data sets, which requires individuals with the disorder to come forward and to participate in research,” she says. “By educating the public about the biology underlying eating disorders, we can break down barriers and overcome the stigma.”
To learn more about how you can support eating disorder programs and research at Mass General, please contact us.
Great read and a fantastic reminder that eating disorders often have a biological basis.
If a wild animal is sick with an infection it stops eating. This begins to make sense when we understand that nearly 5-15% of our body’s energy goes into digestion: http://discovermagazine.com/2009/dec/20-things-you-didnt-know-about-digestion
According to Dr. Bransfield eating disorders are common with Lyme/MSIDS: https://madisonarealymesupportgroup.com/2015/10/18/psychiatric-lymemsids/
In addition, Lyme can trigger a condition known as pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome (PANS) which in turn can also cause eating disorders. http://www.childrenslymenetwork.org/children-pans-pandas/ PANS, similarly to Lyme, still has not been accepted by mainstream medicine despite thousands upon thousands suffering from both.
For more on PANS: https://madisonarealymesupportgroup.com/2017/12/01/guidelines-for-treating-pans-its-real/ In short, treat the infection(s), inflammation, and deal with the psychiatric issues.
Hypoglycemia can also be a player. And according to this article, insulin resistance “causes the body to have problems metabolizing carbohydrates into biological energy called ATP. This energy is essential in the production of feel good neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Thus without that energy the person may tend to feel depressed. The unabsorbed carbohydrates are converted to, first, glycogen and then into fat cells. Thus we find that depressed people may be overweight AND depressed. They are not depressed because of obesity, but because of insulin resistance!! (MedicalNewsToday 8 Oct 2009) See also Hemat.” http://www.hypoglycemia.asn.au/2011/eating-disorders-anorexia-and-bulimia/
The article has great advice if you suspect hypoglycemia is your issue:
“If you suspect that an eating disorder is related to insulin resistance (a pre-diabetic condition called hypoglycemia) then have this tested by a doctor. See How to test for hypoglycemia. If found to be positive, encourage your client to adopt the Hypoglycemic Diet.
For most people sticking to a regime of frequent snacks of high proteins (every 2 ½ hours), plus various vitamins and mineral – so as never to feel hungry – should supply sufficient energy from proteins to produce feel good neurotransmitters such as serotonin. This together with regular – but not excessive – exercises should prevent unabsorbed carbohydrates from being converted to fat cells! But keep in mind possible allergies and food sensitivities that may affect the digestive system.”