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Anorexia may have physical as well as psychological causes

Anorexia nervosa, the most dangerous and deadly among eating disorders that may impact as many as 29 million Americans over their lifetimes, has always been considered a mental illness. But this often devastating disease may have physical along with psychological roots, according to scientists at the University of Oxford.

The researchers conducted an analysis of several past studies that showed an imbalance of gut bacteria could also contribute to anorexia by affecting appetite, weight, and psychiatric health issues such as anxiety and compulsive behavior in those who develop the condition, which most commonly begins in young women between the ages of 13 and 18.   

For instance, previous research has shown that anorexia patients may have more harmful bacteria in their intestines that digest the protective mucus layer of the gut, making the gut “leaky” and contributing to chronic inflammation, which is in turn connected with psychiatric symptoms. Other microbes found in anorexia may affect appetite and energy metabolism, both of which can contribute to the disorder.

“Anorexia nervosa is a very common psychiatric disorder and can be incredibly debilitating or even fatal, but is unfortunately still quite challenging to treat,” explained Ana Ghenciulescu, the review’s lead author. “Moreover, there has been a great deal of recent excitement about the idea that gut microbes affect many aspects of our health, including our mental health – and that this relationship goes both ways.” 

She stressed that while these results are preliminary, they do suggest the exciting possibility that targeting the gut microbiome could someday be a viable treatment for anorexia. The Oxford review was published online in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.

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