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How Your Poop Could Help Cure Eating Disorders

(This content is being used for illustrative purposes only; any person depicted in the content is a model)

A recent study is finally getting to the “gut” of eating disorders.

New research reveals that gut microbes could be the reason why eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are difficult to treat.  And your poop could help researchers find a cure.

There are roughly over 30 million individuals suffering from anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorders. However, there has been little research done on the biological changes those with eating disorders experience.

For most people, eating is an enjoyable experience.  Imagine if you were starving and given a plate of your favorite food.  For someone with anorexia, that is a horrifying experience both in a psychological and biological way.

A person with a severe eating disorder like anorexia has trained their bodies to live on basically nothing. The mind and body adapts to this severe lifestyle by shifting the way it operates.

Deprived of nutrients for long periods of time, a severely anorexic person’s digestive system begins to atrophy. Because of this shift, they are able to live and feel full on a tiny amount of calories.

From my experience with an eating disorder in my early teens, I remember feeling like I was getting “stronger” because starving was becoming easier. I did not realize that my body was completely changing and adapting to essentially keep me alive.

Those with severe enough eating disorders who end up in treatment not only suffer the psychological implications of learning how to eat normally again, they also have to deal with the biological changes.

How Gut Microbes Affect Your Weight

In our guts are trillions of microbes that aid in digestion and keep harmful pathogens from taking over.  Recently, studies have shown that changes in diet shift the population of microbes living in our guts. Now, a study by The International Journal of Eating Disorders discovered that anorexia patients experience a rapid change in the population of these gut microbes.

In the past, gut disorders were treated through fecal transplants. Fecal transplant are exactly what they sound like. They involve putting one person’s feces (yes, poop!) inside the colon of someone else.  The bacteria in the feces help rebalance the gut. Although controversial, this treatment has proven to have successful outcomes for patients suffering with gut disorders like Clostridium difficile (C.Diff).

Shockingly one study revealed a woman who became obese after receiving a fecal transplant from her overweight daughter.  Despite diet and exercise, she was still unable to lose the large amount of weight she gained after the fecal transplant. Clearly there could be a real correlation between gut microbes and weight fluctuation. This correlation could be the answer we need to understand eating disorders better.

What This Means for Eating Disorder Patients

Someone with a severe enough eating disorder like anorexia who seeks treatment in a rehab facility could benefit from increasing the diversity of microbes in their gut.

A pilot study of microbiomes in an eating disorder treatment center reveal differences between patients just admitted to treatment and those who begin gaining some of the weight back. At their lowest weight, the patients had gut microbes that were significantly less diverse than those at a more normal weight.

This is because those with anorexia create a harsh environment for gut microbes to thrive. The few species that can live in the gut of an anorexic person are living on a very few amount of calories. It’s survival of the fittest.

“It practically defies the laws of physics how some of these people can live on so little for such a long period of time and still be alive,” UNC eating disorders researcher Cynthia Bulik says. “That the microbiome of anorexia nervosa hadn’t been studied was mind-boggling.”

In treatment, eating disorder patients are put on high calorie re-feeding diets. These high calorie diets cause their metabolisms to become extremely inefficient. Therefore, many with anorexia have to eat upwards of 3,500 to 4000 calories a day just to gain a pound a week.

This high calorie diet for these patients who have lived a lifestyle of starvation can cause unpleasant side effects like:

  • Severe Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Gas
  • Cramping
  • Stomachaches

These unpleasant side effects make it difficult for eating disorder patients to get better so understanding the microbiome of these patients could allow scientists to come up with cures that will make gaining weight for these patients more manageable and effective.

Once a patient with anorexia gains weight and receives proper nutrients, it allows the body to have a more diverse microbiome.

“And a diverse microbiome is a healthy microbiome,” Bulik says.

The study of the microbiome could explain why some patients with eating disorders like anorexia recover and why others relapse. Could gut biome play a role in determining whether someone relapses after treatment?

Those are the questions that are being explored by Bulik and her team of researchers at the University of North Carolina.

Donate Your Poop to Help

If you are interested in helping find the cure for eating disorders, you can do so by donating your poop to science. The team at uBiome and UNC will use the samples to understand more about the biology of eating disorders. The research could help make the re-nourishment process for eating disorder patients less painful.

You can go on the uBiome website and fill out a brief screening questionnaire. If you meet the criteria, uBiome will allow you to send them a stool sample for their use.  The bacteria in your stool sample will help researchers understand more about the microbiome of eating disorders like anorexia and could even help aid in treatment for other gut disorders.

Eating disorders are complex disorders and require a range of treatment options. Hopefully through research like this, we can figure out better ways of treating patients that can aid in recovery and prevent relapse.  Success is the number one priority and getting to the “guts” of the problem may be the answer we desperately need. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-777-9588.