By On November 10th, 2017

Study suggests autoimmune disease could increase risk for eating disorders

While eating disorders are categorized as a mental illness, researchers are finding new links to physical diseases like immune system disorders that may help us understand how eating disorders develop.

In a study published in the journal Pediatrics, a team of researchers says they have found evidence that immune system issues may make an individual more likely to develop an eating disorder. The research builds on past studies tying autoimmune diseases to other psychiatric disorders.

As the authors of the study explain, our findings support compelling lines of evidence from researchers suggesting that immune system disturbance is both comorbid with psychiatric disorders and can increase risk for illness.”

For this particular study, the researchers analyzed health records collected from nearly 1 million children and adolescents born in Denmark between 1989-2006. These citizens were also followed until 2012.

Throughout this time period, the team identified 25,984 people with autoimmune or autoinflammatory disease. Of those people, approximately 0.6% were later diagnosed with an eating disorder.

While that number may seem low, the team says it represents an increased risk for nearly every form of eating disorders. In particular, children with autoimmune or autoinflammatory disease faced a 50% higher chance of developing an eating disorder. That represents a 73% increased risk for bulimia, 72% higher risk for “eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS), and 36% increased risk for anorexia nervosa.

The risks were even higher for children with an autoimmune disease associated with gastrointestinal distress. These children saw a 74% chance higher risk for anorexia, and 147% increased risk for EDNOS.

The researchers also noted that males were particularly at risk. While autoinflammatory disease was tied to a 179% higher risk for EDNOS, males with autoinflammatory disease were even more in danger of developing an eating disorder. According to the results, males with autoinflammatory disease had a 740% increased risk for EDNOS.

Despite these findings, the researchers could not conclusively say whether autoimmune or autoinflammatory disease directly caused a higher risk of developing an eating disorder. In fact, a significant number of adolescents with eating disorders were later diagnosed with an autoimmune or inflammatory disease, raising questions about how these diseases interacted.

The researchers were also unable to discern for sure why eating disorders and immune diseases were so closely linked, but they did offer a few theories.

“Eating disorders are commonly associated with reward dysfunction, and neural inflammation can lead to changes in reward functioning including heightened reactivity to threat, increased sensitivity to punishment, and decreased connectivity in reward pathways,” they wrote.

They also suggested that the strong links between autoimmune diseases with gastrointestinal involvement may be an issue of misdiagnosis and overlapping syndromes, however, the researchers note that the link remained even when there were no gastrointestinal symptoms involved.

For now, the results of this study raise more questions than they provide answers. Still, it provides insight into the complex mechanisms underlying eating disorders, which intermingle mental health issues with biological wellness.

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