Although cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and counseling could help people with anorexia nervosa, often, these are not enough.
As ironic as it sounds, the best treatment plan for anorexia nervosa includes nutrition. It’s not only to encourage the person to eat again but, most of all, to provide the right types of food the body needs. This is especially true for the gut and the billions of microorganisms that live there.
The Gut-Brain Connection
Do you ever notice why your stomach feels uneasy when you’re nervous or anxious? Why is it difficult for some to control their urges for food or anger when they cannot eat on time?
For many, the gut and the brain are two separate and distinct organs. For scientists, the connection is far more intimate.
1. Enteric Nervous System (ENS)
The digestive tract contains the enteric nervous system (ENS), which others call the second brain. It is comprised of thousands of neurons that communicate with one another to perform various tasks.
These include breaking down enzymes or contracting the intestinal muscles to move food or waste. However, ENS is independent of the central nervous system (CNS).
The second brain doesn’t process information the same way the actual brain does. It cannot compose words or think logically.
But ENS still work with CNS via the vagus nerves. These run from the brain in the head to the digestive tract. Like other nerves, they deliver information to and from these organs.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate not only mood but also appetite. People with lower levels can experience symptoms of anxiety and struggle with controlling their food intake.
While most people know that the brain produces it, not many are aware it’s the gut that releases much serotonin. In fact, studies reveal that about 90% of the neurotransmitter comes from the digestive tract.
Moreover, in a 2015 Caltech study, germ-free mice (or animals with no bacterial colony in the gut) produced at least 60% less serotonin than their counterparts. But when the researchers introduced the microbiome, their levels of the neurotransmitter increased.
3. Changes in the Brain and the Gut
People with eating disorders need close monitoring even after they completed their treatment plan. The risk of a relapse is high, especially during the first few months. One reason is the condition’s ability to alter the structure of the brain and, subsequently, the gut.
A 2016 Colorado study revealed that eating disorders can reverse the way the brain works when a person is hungry. It could override the hypothalamus, the region that controls appetite, and weaken its neural pathways.
However, nutritional deficiencies can impact the gut by lowering both the number and the diversity of the microorganisms. These could affect the production of neurotransmitters and hormones, breakdown of enzymes, and immune system, among others.
The Bottom Line
Eating disorders, like anorexia nervosa, are a lot more complex than people know. In some cases, they go beyond the usual suspects, such as low self-esteem or trauma.
They might also be related to the changes happening in the body, particularly the brain and the gut. Ergo, for a treatment plan to work, it might also need to include food that nourishes both.