Anorexia: Biology behind the disease

Researchers have shown what's going on in the gut may influence the brain

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Ivanhoe Newswire) – More than 30 million people are suffering from some form of an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Much research has focused on the brain and the mental aspect of the disease, but new research shows there may also be a biological reason.

Researchers have shown why what’s going on in the gut may influence what’s going on in the brain.

When Caroline Gobble looks back on the years she struggled with anorexia, she knows it was not just about wanting to be skinny.

Gobble told Ivanhoe, “I knew it was serious, but I don’t think I realized the extent of the mental aspect to be perfect.”

Researchers have now discovered another common trait. It has to do with the bacteria in the gut known as microbiota. There are trillions in our intestinal tract that help digest food, regulate weight and make serotonin; a chemical that contributes to feelings of happiness.

Ian Carroll, PhD, Assistant Professor of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at the Center for Gastrointestinal Biology and Disease at UNC Chapel Hill told Ivanhoe, “What we found was that the intestinal microbiota, the diversity of the intestinal microbiota, for the first time was found to be associated with mental health.”

When Carroll collected stool samples from 16 women with anorexia, he found their microbiota had less diversity than the average healthy person. As the women began to eat, their microbiota improved and so did their depression and anxiety.

Stephanie Zerwas, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at UNC Chapel Hill said, “This helps people understand that there’s biologically something very different about someone who is struggling with the disease.”

Zerwas says this study opens up new possibilities for treatment. Patients sometimes suffer painful stomach problems when they increase calories, part of the reason many relapse.

Gobble said, “If somebody could manipulate something in my stomach to help with the anxiety or the fear, to make it easier to gain weight, I would be all about it.”

Now that researchers know that gut bacteria plays a role in eating disorders, the next step in their research will entail finding out if altering the intestinal microbiota will be an easier and more effective treatment for people with an eating disorder.