Eating Disorders and Autoimmune Disease


Autoimmune diseases afflict nearly 24 million Americans. Yet 90% of Americans cannot name a single one of these deadly and disabling diseases. If autoimmune diseases were grouped as a single category rather than more than 20 separate illnesses, they would be one of the ten most common causes of death for women under the age of 65.

According to News Medical, “autoimmune diseases arise from the overactive immune response of the body against substances and tissues normally present in the body. In other words, the body actually attacks its own cells. This may be restricted to certain organs (e.g. in thyroiditis [or Type 1 Diabetes]) or involve a particular tissue in different places (e.g. Goodpasture’s disease which may affect the basement membrane in both the lung and the kidney). There are more than 80 different autoimmune diseases”. The more commonly mentioned autoimmune diseases include Graves’ disease, Hashimoto’s disease, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Type 1 Diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and Celiac disease.

According to Dr. Alessio Fasano, there are three factors that must be present in order for an individual to develop an autoimmune disease:

  • the individual must be exposed to an environmental trigger
  • the individual must be genetically predisposed
  • the individual must have intestinal permeability (leaky gut)

Eating a diet that includes genetically engineered foods impacts the endocrine system in ways that increase the likelihood of autoimmune disorders. It also increases the likelihood of developing leaky gut. In other words, eating genetically engineered foods can expose us to two of the three factors listed by Dr. Fasano; they can be an environmental trigger and lead to leaky gut.

Leaky gut is very common in psychiatric diseases such as anorexia, bulimia, alzheimer’s and schizophrenia. You don’t have to have gut symptoms to have leaky gut; leaky gut can be completely asymptomatic. According to Dr. Jack Kruse, many individuals with eating disorders have a permeable gut barrier and brain barrier. This combination causes disruption in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) which leads to changes in cortisol (which is the stress hormone that tears things down in the body), dehydropiandrosterone (DHEA), which is an anabolic hormone that builds things back up, Insulin Growth Factor 1 (IGF1) which is a hormone that promotes growth and prevents cells from dying, and melatonin, known as the “sleep hormone” as it regulates sleep cycles. (Note: Altered circadian rhythm can affect sleep, hormones, and other functions within the body. Altered circadian cycles are also linked with obesity, diabetes, and psychiatric diseases such as depression.)

One small study in Sweden suggested that there could be a connection between autoimmune diseases and eating disorders. Researchers found that nearly three out of four women (74%) with an eating disorder also had antibodies that have a negative effect on the hypothalamus or pituitary. These antibodies were only found in 2 of 13 women without eating disorders. The hypothalamus plays a significant role in regulating how much food we eat. The researchers stated that more research would need to be completed before clinical applications of the findings can be considered. They are continuing to research the link between the nervous system and the immune system in individuals with eating disorders.

There are several measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of developing an autoimmune condition. We can eat clean, which will reduce our exposure to environmental triggers. In other words, eat organic foods that contain no additives, carcinogens, or GMO’s. We can avoid foods that cause an inflammatory response; these foods will vary from person to person, but usually involve grains or foods to which we are allergic. We can avoid foods that cause leaky gut, such as cereal grains, sugar, processed soy and industrial seed oils.

We can also take steps to help heal the gut. According to Chris Kresser we can promote the healing of the gut through:

  • Removing all food toxins from your diet
  • Eating plenty of fermentable fibers (starches like sweet potato, yam, yucca, etc.)
  • Eating fermented foods like kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi etc. and/or take a high-quality, multi-species probiotic
  • Treat any intestinal pathogens (such as parasites) that may be present
  • Take steps to manage your stress in order to reduce cortisol

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Medical Advice Disclaimer: The information included on this site is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan. Reading the information on this website does not create a physician-patient relationship.

© 2013, Dr J Renae Norton. This information is intellectual property of Dr J Renae Norton. Reproduction and distribution for educational purposes is permissible. Please credit ‘© 2013, Dr J Renae Norton.’


Autoimmune diseases: a leading cause of death among young and middle-aged women in the United States.

What is Autoimmune Disease?

Autoantibodies against α-MSH, ACTH, and LHRH in anorexia and bulimia nervosa patients

Mechanisms of Disease: the role of intestinal barrier function in the pathogenesis of gastrointestinal autoimmune diseases

The Leaky Gut Prescription

9 Steps to Perfect Health – #1: Don’t Eat Toxins

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