Gut Bacteria Play a Role in Anorexia and Other Eating Disorders

837 anorexia and gut microbiome

People with eating disorders such as anorexia simply do not experience hunger and satiety in the same way people who have a healthy relationship with food do. New research suggests that the composition of gut bacteria, or the gut microbiome, may play a role in the behavioral aspects of anorexia and eating disorders. For instance, previous research shows a connection between mood disorders such as depression and poor gut microbiome diversity. Less than half of people with eating disorders fully recover, showing that conventional treatments are failing untold numbers of people, the vast majority of them women.

The study showed that patients with anorexia had lower diversity of gut bacteria than healthy individuals. They also found that the less diverse the gut microbiome was the more depression and anxiety patients suffered. The researchers also found that as a patient with anorexia began eating again their gut bacteria diversity was partially restored, which in itself aided in recovery.

Alterations in the gut microbiome can affect how a person’s body functions, how they think, feel, and behave, and how they interact with others.

The gut microbiome is critical not only to regulating mood and behavior, it also plays a vital role in regulating metabolic function, appetite control, and weight.

A better understanding of the role of the gut microbiome in anorexia can help researchers forge new directions in treatment around determining target weight goals, how fast the anorexic patient should gain weight, and what type of diet the anorexic patient should follow to best support the brain’s role in eating disorder behaviors.

The researchers are now investigating whether targeted probiotics could ease the renourishment and refeeding phase of anorexia recovery — many patients struggle with gastric and abdominal distress when reintroducing foods. Customized probiotic therapy could also support the mental and emotional aspects of recovery from an eating disorder.

Gut bacteria targeted in eating disorders

Past research has also shown a link between the gut microbiome and eating disorders, which affect an estimated 5 to 10 percent of the population. A 2015 study from France showed gut bacteria plays a role in eating disorders.

The study looked at mice who had an inflammatory reaction to a protein made by gut bacteria. In essence, the mice responded to these bacteria as if it were an allergy or sensitivity. This immune response caused eating disorders in the mice.

The gut bacteria that triggered this reaction is very similar in structure to a hormone called alpha-Melanocyte-stimulating hormone (a-MSH). a-MSH is a satiety hormone that tells you when to feel full. When the immune system attacks the gut bacteria similar to a-MSH, it also attacks the a-MSH due to their structural similarity. This immune reaction can then dysregulate signals around feeding, energy usage, and anxiety.

When the immune system mistakenly attacks the body

This study is evidence of a “cross-reactive” immune reaction, in which the immune system confuses something in the body with something infectious and attacks both. This is a very common mechanism in autoimmune reactions, such as with Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism, type 1 diabetes, or multiple sclerosis.

The research suggests that some eating disorders may have an immune reaction driving the psychological disorder.

Tips on addressing eating disorders nutritionally

Although eating disorders are highly complicated and require intensive, sometimes multi-faceted therapeutic approaches, it’s still important to be mindful of nutritional strategies to support the brain and the gut microbiome:

Eliminate processed carbs and sugars as they trigger addictive tendencies metabolically.

Keep blood sugar stable to curbing cravings, food obsession, and relentless hunger. You may need to eat small, frequent meals that include protein initially.

Base your diet on plenty of vegetables and a wide, ever changing diversity of vegetables. This will increase the diversity of your gut microbiome, which promotes psychological health and stability.

Supporting your brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters affect your mood, thoughts about yourself, behavior, energy levels, and other aspects of how you feel and function. For instance, you may need serotonin or dopamine support. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that allows us to feel joy and stave off depression. Dopamine, on the other hand, is necessary to feel self-worth, motivation, and to not experience constant cravings. Both serotonin and dopamine have been shown to play a role in eating disorders. If you have been starving yourself, binging and purging, undereating, or affecting your diet in other ways due to an eating disorder, there is a strong possibility you may be deficient in either one or both of these important neurotransmitters.

Ask my office for more advice on how to support a healthier approach to balanced approach to recovering from eating disorders.

Gut Bacteria and the Heart

832 gut bacteria and the heart

Unhealthy gut bacteria are a bigger risk for atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries than smoking, cholesterol levels, obesity, or diabetes. Atherosclerosis is the leading cause of heart disease.

That’s because the root cause of heart disease is inflammation. In fact, most modern health disorders are rooted in inflammation, including arthritis, diabetes, obesity, dementia, depression, and inflammatory bowel disease. Cardiovascular disease is no exception.

So where do gut bacteria come in? Researchers have discovered an unhealthy microbiome — the term given to our inner garden of gut bacteria — is pro-inflammatory while a healthy gut microbiome is anti-inflammatory. Unfortunately, Americans have the unhealthiest gut microbiomes studied thus far.

A recent study found that women experiencing hardening of the arteries also showed less gut bacteria diversity while women with healthy arteries showed healthier gut bacteria. A diverse array of gut bacteria is linked with better health.

The study also found that in healthy subjects, diverse and healthy gut bacteria produced more indolepropionic acid (IPA), a neuroprotective antioxidant that also has been shown to lower the risk of diabetes.

The gut microbiome and high blood pressure

It turns out there is more to high blood pressure than reducing your salt intake. Researchers have found high blood pressure, which increases your risk of heart disease and stroke, can also be linked to the gut microbiome.

The key is in a compound called propionate, one of several short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) produced by healthy gut bacteria. Scientists are learning that SCFAs such as propionate and butyrate are instrumental to the health of the brain and body in many ways, with propionate being specific to the cardiovascular system.

How to foster a heart-healthy gut microbiome

Although taking propionate may help, it won’t do much good if it’s battling a minefield of infectious and inflammatory gut bacteria. Just as healthy gut bacteria produce SCFAs that are good for us, bad bacteria produce the highly inflammatory compound lipopolysaccharide (LPS).

The key to a heart-healthy gut microbiome is to eat about 25–30 grams of fiber a day via a very diverse array of vegetables and modest amounts of fruit (fruits are high in sugar and too much sugar is inflammatory).

It’s the diversity of vegetables that matters most, with research increasingly confirming that a diverse gut microbiome is what lies behind good health and a lower risk of disease.

Switch up the vegetables you eat regularly and shop at world markets unfamiliar to you to try new types of produce. Even a teaspoon of different new veggies each day is enough to help colonize the friendly bacteria that will work to keep your heart healthy.

In this fiber-rich environment, supplementing with SCFAs such as butyrate and propionate can help boost your gut bacteria to produce even more of their own SCFAs.

Additionally, make sure to keep your blood sugar stable by eliminating sugars, sweeteners, and processed carbohydrates, avoid foods that cause an immune reaction in you (for example, gluten and dairy do for many people), avoid toxin chemicals in your foods and body products that can kill good bacteria, and exercise daily — exercise has been shown to positively influence your gut microbiome.

Ask my office for more advice on how to cultivate an optimal gut microbiome and detoxify bad bacteria.