UK Scientists Claim Anorexia Is Linked To An Autoimmune Disorder
While anorexia is easily the most recognized and discussed eating disorder today, the truth is we know shockingly little about what conditions lead to developing the disorder – let alone how to actively treat the biological components contributing to anorexia. However, a team of researchers claims to have potentially found the root of the disorder in a surprising place.
Researchers from several universities in the UK, including Lancaster University and the University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay, published a paper last week suggesting the development of anorexia is tied to a the body’s response to bacterial infection.
The team also indicate chronic fatigue and irritable bowel syndrome may be brought on by the same issue.
“Psychological factors might be important, but are unconvincing as the primary or major cause,” write the team of researchers in their paper published in Medical Hypotheses. However, as the title of the journal suggests, it is currently just a hypothesis without any data to back it up.
Making claims that anorexia begins with a bacterial infection without research seems dubious at best, but the experts make a strong argument. They believe that a patient’s immune system creates antibodies as a response to bacterial infections, but some “confused” antibodies attack the individual’s nerve cells instead.
The team says this common root cause could explain the symptoms shared by anorexia, irritable bowel syndrome, and chronic fatigue. It could also potentially explain the discrepancy between the number of men and women who develop these conditions.
Women face a significantly increased risk of developing other autoimmune disorders.
“The female to male ratio in these conditions is of the order of 10,” the researchers write. “The female excess in irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, and anorexia nervosa is equally extreme, and therefore this fits with the idea that auto-antibodies to nerve cells could be part of the pathogenesis of these conditions.”
They go on to argue that damage to nerve cells could directly contribute to specific symptoms of anorexia, including psychological aspects like body dysphoria.
“Auto-antibodies acting on the (brain’s) limbic system could induce extremes of emotion including disgust and fear,” write the scientists. “These then become linked, in the minds of adolescent girls, to culturally determined ideas of what is, and what is not, the ideal body shape and size. It is then a small step for disgust and fear to be directed to food and obesity which the fashion industry currently demonises.”
The researchers recognize that social and environmental factors may still play a significant role in the development of anorexia, but dismiss the idea they are the primary cause.
“There might, for instance, be an increased incidence of physical and sexual abuse in childhood in those who go on to manifest functional disorders,” they write. “It is easy to see how this could influence symptoms in adults but it stretches credulity to imagine abuse as the sole and sufficient cause of the functional disorder.”
Significant research will have to be done to confirm or discredit the ideas published by the team, but they plan to start testing the claims using animal models in the very near future. If that yields positive results, they will conduct human trials “and hopefully have an answer by the end of the year.”