Considering Gut Health in Treating Eating Disorders

by Jason Arnold, PhD, ND

Currently there are approximately around 30 million people in the United States struggling with some form of eating disorder whether it be Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, or Bing Eating Disorder (National Eating Disorder Association, 2018). According to the American Psychiatric Association, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM; 2013). Clinicians and providers are still searching for new and innovative ways to treat these serious illnesses. We have seen the use of psychopharmacology, therapy, group therapy, family-based treatment, and functional approaches to clinical nutrition – all of which have been met with measured success. One of the areas that has been recently explored is your own body system and how this can influence not only your physical health, but your mental health as well.

There has been a huge amount of attention on the gut microbiome, or the community of microorganisms living in our digestive tracts. It appears that, in the past couple years, many physicians and providers have been looking at gut health as being a link to physical and mental health. For a Cliffs Notes idea of what this means is that your gut has trillions of microbes – “gut bugs”, so to speak – that are used in digestion and other physical processes that enable a person to live.

There is evidence that the health of your gut can impact your mental health. Based on research from the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine (Kleiman, Watson, & Bulik-Sullivan, 2015) there appears to be a direct link between your gut and your brain. A majority of Serotonin – the neurotransmitter that regulates mood and anxiety states – is actually made in your digestive tract. The link between gut health and eating disorders is even more so. According to Dr. Loren Cordain, a scientist who specializes in nutrition and exercise physiology,  people who are struggling with eating disorders have different types of microbes, or gut bugs, than those who do not have ED. Each individual has close to a trillion bacteria in their gut that aids in digestion and processing of nutrients.  In addition, those who have eating disorders also typically have fewer microbes than those without eating disorders, which may be a result of altered digestive processes or eating disorder behaviors (Kleiman et al., 2015). Research suggests that a change in your gut microbiome can also help a change in your mood and aid in your recovery as well (Thaler, 2015; Deans, 2015).

So here are a couple of helpful hints that could  build back up your gut microbes, which in turn, may potentially help improve your mood, decrease your anxiety, and also help regulate how your body digests food and stores nutrients as you progress through the recovery of an eating disorder:

  1. First things first. The best rubric: Lack of nutrition and a lack of a balanced diet lead to poorer health, symptoms of depression, anxiety, and ultimately can influence the microbiome in your gut. A balanced diet according to Dr. SC Kleiman, a researcher on gut health and eating disorders, leads to more positive outcomes. Meet with your dietician regularly and make sure you ask questions and address any concerns you have about what you are eating and how that may influence your recovery.
  2. Consider the types of foods that you do eat. To strengthen your internal body system and your gut microbes, eating a variety of foods in textures, colors, etc. Research (Heiman & Greenway, 2016) suggests that variety helps to challenge gut microbes, encourages reproduction and diversity in your gut microbes, and strengthens the microbiome. The road to good gut health and an improvement in mood and anxiety, and ultimately a reduction in symptoms of an eating disorder is to allow for variation in your diet. This is a great way to also work on challenge foods as well!
  3. If you have been struggling with an eating disorder for quite some time consider probiotics. As a society, we’ve been using probiotics for years to support good gut health and digestion. These are foods, such as yogurt, that contain good, friendly bacteria that can help restore gut health. According to Dr. Karen Ross, MD, MPH, a physician and columnist from Psychology today, probiotics are associated with positive physical and mental outcomes. Probiotics also come as supplements including products like Culturelle. These can be taken under the direction of a physician.

If this is something you feel is worth exploring, speak to your doctor, dietician, or treatment team. During your recovery, it is important to have the maximum amount of support you can during a time that may be intimidating and sometimes very scary. Your providers can best help direct your treatment in a way that is right for you that will not only keep you healthy, but keep you safe. Everyone has the right to recovery regardless as to where they are in that process. If you need help, please do not hesitate and reach out.

Be well.



Deans, E. (2015). Junk food, gut, and brain. Evolutionary Psychiatry. Retrieved from on September 15, 2018.

Heiman, ML & Greenway, FL (2016). A healthy gastrointestinal microbiome is dependent on dietary diversity. Molecular Metabolism, 5(5) 317-320.

Kleiman SC, Watson HJ, Bulik-Sullivan EC (2015). The intestinal microbiota in acute Anorexia Nervosa and during renourishment: Relationship to depression, anxiety, and eating disorder psychopathology. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2015.

Thaler, C. (2015). Eating disorders, mental health, and the gut microbiome. The Paleo Diet. Retrieved from on September 12, 2018.