Stress Not Always a Trigger for Relapse in Eating Disorders

By Robert Preidt
HealthDay reporter

THURSDAY April 15, 2021 (HealthDay News) – Stress does not trigger binge eating in people with eating disorders, new research shows.

The findings challenge a common theory that has never been directly tested in patients, according to the study’s authors.

Their research included 85 women (22 with anorexia, 33 bulimics, and a control group of 30 without an eating disorder). Study participants were assessed for two days to determine how stress affected their eating habits.

The women also had a brain MRI to assess brain activity.

“The idea was to see what happened when these women were stressed. Did it affect key areas of the brain important for self-control, and did it lead to increased food intake? What we found surprised us and flies in the face of mainstream theory, ”said Margaret Westwater, who led the study as a doctoral student in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, UK. .


When presented to a buffet, women with eating disorders overall ate less than those in the control group, but the amount they ate did not differ after undergoing stressful or non-stressful tests, showed the results.

The researchers found that activity in two key regions of the brain was associated with the amount of calories consumed in all three groups, suggesting that these regions play an important role in controlling eating.

“Even though these two eating disorders are similar in many ways, there are clear differences at the brain level,” Westwater said in a college press release.

In particular, bulimic women seem to have difficulty slowing their response to changes in the environment. This could lead to hasty decisions that would leave them vulnerable to binge eating, she added.

“Theory suggests these women should have eaten more when stressed, but that’s actually not what we found,” Westwater said. “Obviously, when we think of the eating behavior in these disorders, we need to take a more nuanced approach.”

The results were published on April 12 in the Journal of Neuroscience.


Co-lead author Paul Fletcher said the results clearly show that the relationship between stress and binge eating is very complicated.

“It’s about the environment around us, our psychological state, and how our body signals us when we are hungry or full,” said Fletcher, professor of psychiatry.

If researchers can better understand how the gut shapes thoughts related to self-control or decision-making, they may be in a better position to help people with “these extremely debilitating diseases,” he said. .

“To do that, we need to take a much more integrated approach to studying these diseases,” Fletcher added.

More information

The US National Institute of Mental Health has more on eating disorders.

SOURCE: University of Cambridge, press release, April 12, 2021

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