Eating Disorders and The Gut: What’s the Connection?

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Could a teen’s eating disorder be caused by an infection he or she had as a child?

Danish researchers think so, and that it may be related to changes in our gut bacteria.

A review of more than 525,000 cases from Danish health registries showed an association between childhood infections and an increased risk of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and other eating disorders during adolescence. The research was published in the April 2019 edition of JAMA Psychiatry, a publication of the Journal of The American Medical Association

Specifically, the paper stated that the severity of the infection and the need for anti-infection drugs was related to an increased likelihood and/or frequency of experiencing eating disorders. More research is being conducted to test the connection.

eating disorders

The brain-gut connection

These findings suggest that both the immune system and the gut microbiome play a strong role in mental health disorders, says Dr. Michelle Pearlman, a gastroenterologist with the University of Miami Health System.

“The microbiome refers to a vast array of bacteria living in our gut,” says Dr. Pearlman. “These bacteria are essential for normal biological processes, including absorption and digestion of key nutrients and cellular function. They also send signals to the brain that influence our mood and feelings.”

Eating disorders 101

“One thing about eating disorders that we want people to know is that they do not just happen to our youth,” says Dr. Pearlman. “Eating disorders exhibit no boundaries. They affect all sexes, races, and ages and can develop in those that you least expect. Family members and friends need to be aware of any significant changes in eating behaviors and patterns so that early interventions can be implemented.”

Dr. Pearlman says two big signs to watch for include:

  • Becoming secretive about what you eat.
  • Suddenly eating far less or more on a regular basis (restrictive or compulsive eating).

Fad diets like keto, intermittent fasting, and liquid diets are hot topics. These restrictive eating patterns, however, can pose long term risks and lead to disordered eating habits, says Dr. Pearlman.

“Many of the most popular diets today are nothing more than glorified paths to an eating disorder,” she says.


John Senall is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News. He is a former hospital and comprehensive cancer center communications director.


READ MORE: What is the Gut Microbiome?