The complex interplay between childhood infections and eating disorders

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  Last updated July 19, 2019 at 1:57 pm

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A new study suggests that a severe infection during childhood is associated with a risk of developing an eating disorder later in life.


eating disorder serious illness

New research suggests that severe infections in childhood can increase the risk of developing an eating disorder.


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.


Professor Sir Peter Lachmann from the University of Cambridge told the UK SMC the study could have benefitted from a control group who were hospitalised for other, unrelated reasons.


“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.


You can read the full AusSMC Expert Reaction here, and the UK SMC Expert Reaction here.


If you or someone you know needs help with eating disorders, help is available from the Butterfly Foundation 1800 33 4673.


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About the Author

Olivia Henry
Olivia Henry is Media Officer at the Australian Science Media Centre. She spends her days nerding out about the latest research in the hopes that journalists will nerd out too. Olivia has Bachelor’s degrees in Biomedical Science and Media (Journalism), and has studied in Japan and Spain. Before joining the AusSMC in 2018, Olivia worked at Fairfax Media, SciWorld, Channel 44 Adelaide and interned at Australia's Science Channel. If you like this super-funky-science-machine, you can catch her talking science on 2CC Canberra or hosting the Night Shift on Radio Adelaide.

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The Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) is an independent, not-for-profit service for the news media, giving journalists direct access to evidence-based science and expertise. We aim to better inform public debate on the major issues of the day by improving links between the media and the scientific community. The Centre works with journalists to help them cover science as well as identify the science angles in everyday news stories and works with the scientific community to help them interact more effectively with the media and ensure that their voices are heard on issues of national importance.


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