The anorexia nervosa gut microbiome differs from healthy controls and is related to mental health

Two photographs, before and after treatment for anorexia

Two photographs, before and after treatment for anorexia

Anorexia nervosa is devastating condition in which an individual purposely starves themselves leading to severely low weight.  In addition, most patients with anorexia have depression, and there is a definitely mental aspect to this disease.  The disease then, has both dietary and mental components, making it extremely interesting to microbiome scientists, because the microbiome is implicated with both of these facets.  Scientists from UNC recently conducted a preliminary study on both of these aspects of the disease by comparing the microbiomes and mental state of anorexic patients before and after treatment, along with healthy controls.  They published there results last week in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

Sixteen patients with anorexia nervosa who sought treatment for their disease had stool samples collected at admission to the hospital as well as their mental health assessed.  Ten of these individuals that made partial recoveries (improved body mass index) were discharged from the hospital and donated stool samples and had their mental health assessed upon leaving.  The researchers discovered that the patients’ microbiomes severely lacked diversity compared to aged matched controls, and that was true for both admission and discharge from the hospital.  The scientists noted though, that the patients that left the hospital had microbiomes that more resembled the control individuals than when they entered.  For example, the anorexic patients had very little Clostridia when they entered the hospital, but these populations rebounded during treatment.  In terms of the mental health aspect of anorexia and the microbiome, the researchers found a direct association between eating disorder psychopathology and microbiome diversity, with lower diversity corresponding to worse eating disorder psychopathology.  The same was true for depression, as the degree of depression was inversely correlated with bacterial diversity.  In terms of individual families of bacteria, a lack of Ruminococcaceae had the strongest association negative mental state.

This study shows that a lack of eating decreases gut flora diversity and negatively impacts the microbiome.  While not surprising, this lack of diversity will almost certainly cause a dysbiosis that detriments many other aspects of health.  One of these, in the case of anorexia, may be mental health, but of course it is not clear which causes which, or if there is any causation or merely just correlation.  In any event, disorders that have both mental and dietary components are extremely fascinating to investigate, as it is possible the microbiome is of primary importance to these diseases.

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