Last updated July 19, 2019 at 1:57 pm
A new study suggests that a severe infection during childhood is associated with a risk of developing an eating disorder later in life.
Having a serious infection during childhood appears to increase the risk of developing an eating disorder for teenage girls, according to a team of international scientists who looked at the health records of more than half a million Danish girls.
The researchers found those hospitalised with a severe infection were at increased risk of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and other eating disorders later, compared with girls who had not been hospitalised with an infection.
Girls who had not been hospitalised but had still been treated with anti-infective drugs were also at increased risk of eating disorders later, compared with those who didn’t receive anti-infective drugs.
Study can’t reliably say what causes eating disorders
Dr Elena Schneider from the University of Melbourne, who was not involved in the study, told the AusSMC that this study is the latest in a series of trials investigating the association between infection, treatment and eating disorder diagnosis.
“We all have experienced that when we are sick, we lose our appetite,” says Schneider.
“But how being sick affects eating habits long-term has only recently been discussed.”
The Danish study can not reliably say what causes the eating disorders yet – this is something to be explored in future studies.
“Just to make sure that factors related to childhood hospitalisation are not responsible for the differences reported,” he said.
Building on the biology of eating disorders
Adding to this, Dr Dasha Nicholls from the Royal College of Psychiatrists said that while the study can not establish that infections cause eating disorders, “this is good quality research which builds on our understanding of the biology of eating disorders.”
So what we can take home from this study is that there seems to be a complex interplay between the immune system and eating behaviours, according to Dr Schneider.
“Infections and inflammation can trigger behaviour changes which, in vulnerable individuals, can affect eating behaviour long-term,” she said.
If you or someone you know needs help with eating disorders, help is available from the Butterfly Foundation 1800 33 4673.