Study links eating disorders and autoimmune diseases

People diagnosed with an eating disorder are more likely to develop an autoimmune disease such as type 1 diabetes or Crohn’s disease, according to a study released earlier this year, which could change the way doctors treat both types of conditions.

An eating disorder is a psychiatric condition that causes a severe disruption in a person’s eating habits. Someone with an eating disorder might not eat enough food, while others may overeat or vomit following a meal. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eating disorders most often appear in adolescence. As many as 3 percent of older teens develop an eating disorder, with girls 2.5 times more likely than boys to have one.

By contrast, autoimmune diseases are physical ailments. They occur when a person’s immune system mistakes the body’s own cells and tissue for foreign invaders such as germs. In the case of Crohn’s disease, the immune response attacks a person’s digestive tract, resulting in chronic inflammation and damage to the bowels.

Finding a robust link
The recent study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, was conducted at the Eating Disorder Unit of Helsinki University Central Hospital in Finland and tracked 2,342 patients from 1995 to 2010. Of those patients, 8.9 percent were diagnosed with an autoimmune disease versus 5.4 percent of those in the control group. Type 1 diabetes was the most common endocrine disease found in the study. Crohn’s disease accounted for most of the gastroenterological diseases.

Researchers said they were surprised by the “robust” link between eating disorders and autoimmune diseases. In an interview with Medscape Medical News, Dr. Anu Raevuori, the lead author of the study said, “On the other hand, my clinical impression is that in many patients with eating disorders, particularly those with long-lasting and persistent symptoms, the disorder appears to have a biological background.”

“Our findings support the link between immune-mediated mechanisms and development of eating disorders,” Dr. Raevuori writes in the study. Although, she notes, more research is needed to explore the connection.

Autoimmune disorders play roles in other diseases
Previous research has suggested that autoimmune diseases are risk factors for mood disorders such as schizophrenia as well. They also play a role in several other conditions, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Currently, treatments for eating disorders rely on a combination of psychotherapy and nutritional counseling. For patients with underlying depression or anxiety disorders, antidepressants or mood stabilizers can help. If new studies bolster the Finnish researchers’ findings, look for new treatments to be added to that arsenal in the near future.