Is there a connection between viral infections and eating disorders? A recent study suggests that this is a strong possibility.
Lauren Breithaupt, a clinical psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, partnered with Dr. Cynthia Bulik from the University of North Carolina and researchers in Denmark to explore the possibility. After looking at the health records of over half a million Danish teen girls born between 1989 and 2006 , they concluded that those hospitalized with a serious infection were:
- 22% more likely to have anorexia
- 35% more likely to have bulimia
- 39% more likely to have OSFED
Additionally, the onset of the eating disorder occurred shortly after the infection, usually within the first three months of being discharged from the hospital.
In a recent article in The Atlantic, Breithaupt reports that she has treated individuals who “have really rigid thoughts and impressions about either food or weight” or have increased concerns about fat after having an infection.
These findings cloudy the conventional understandings of how an eating disorder develops. Historically, eating disorder professionals will focus on the genetic, psychological, relational, and cultural factors in the development of an eating disorder. Only in more recent years has the discussion started to include a consideration of brain development and gut health.
One theory that the authors of the study put forward is that infections or the medications used to treat them cause a disturbance in the gut microbiome. Dr. Breitbart states, “We know that both contracting an infection and taking an anti-infective agent alters the stability of microbes in our gut.”  Because there is a strong connection between the gut and the brain, it’s possible that this disturbance negatively impacts thoughts regarding food, fat, and body image.
Another theory suggests that the body’s immune response to infections plays a role. When someone is ill, the body produces proteins designed to attack the virus. Is it possible that these proteins get into the brain regions, which influence control hunger and fullness cues?
These ideas are similar to a condition known as PANDAS (pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infection.  PANDAS is diagnosed when a child begins to exhibit obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviors shortly after having strep throat. Scientists want to know if PANDAS and eating disorders may share a common origin.
Our understanding of the brain, the gut, and human health is increasing every day. Still, there is so much to learn, and the days of believing that body and mind do not influence one another are fading into the past.
Khazan, O. (2019, October 18). A Strange New Culprit Behind Eating Disorders. Retrieved December 13, 2019, from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/10/infections-eating-disorders/600289/.
Kwon, D. (2019, May 8). Infections and Drugs to Treat Them Tied to Eating Disorders in Teens. Retrieved December 13, 2019, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/infections-and-drugs-to-treat-them-tied-to-eating-disorders-in-teens/.
PANDAS-Questions and Answers. (n.d.). Retrieved December 13, 2019, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/pandas/index.shtml.
About the Author:
Travis Stewart, LPC has been mentoring others since 1992 and became a Licensed Professional Counselor in 2005. His counseling approach is relational and creative, helping people understand their story while also building hope for the future. Travis has experience with a wide variety of issues which might lead people to seek out professional counseling help.
This includes a special interest in helping those with compulsive and addictive behaviors such as internet and screen addiction, eating disorders, anxiety, and perfectionism. Specifically, he has worked with eating disorders since 2003 and has learned from many of the field’s leading experts. He has worked with hundreds of individuals facing life-threatening eating disorders in all levels of treatment. His website is wtravisstewart.com
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published January 2, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on January 2, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC