If you’re one of the 1 in 100 Americans diagnosed with celiac disease, there’s a new study you need to know about. It turns out that celiac disease, a medical condition in which the gluten in many common foods triggers an immune response that damages the small intestine and interferes with nutrient absorption, has been found to be linked to the chronic eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, a disorder that causes people to believe they are overweight, when in fact they’re likely underweight, often dangerously so. Both disorders affect predominantly adolescents and young women. (Don’t miss the silent signs of celiac disease.)
Researchers at the Barbara Davis Center at the University of Colorado got the idea to explore a possible link between the disorders when they noticed that anorexia and celiac disease both tend to occur in adolescents and young adults. Their findings, published in the journal Pediatrics, confirmed their suspicions: Young women diagnosed with celiac disease before the age of 19 were 4.5 times more likely to have also been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, and adults aged 20 and over who were previously diagnosed with celiac disease were twice as likely to develop anorexia nervosa later in life than those without celiac disease, the study reports.
For their research, the scientists looked at 17,959 Swedish women diagnosed with celiac disease between 1969 and 2008, along with a control group of 89,379 women without celiac disease. They followed the study participants for 1,174,401 “person years,” which, as Medical News Today explains, is “a measurement commonly used in health studies to calculate incidence rates of an illness. It combines the number of participants and the time they spent contributing to the study.” Upon the study’s conclusion, researchers found that 54 of the 18,000 patients with celiac disease were diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.
This doesn’t mean that celiac causes anorexia or vice versa, the researchers caution. Instead, they suspect that that the two diseases may be linked simply as a result of misdiagnosis. Because they have similar gastrointestinal symptoms, people with celiac disease may have been misdiagnosed with anorexia, or the other way around.
It’s also possible, according to study authors Neville Golden and K.T. Park, that being forced to carefully watch your diet when you have celiac disease may “lead to the development of anorexia nervosa in susceptible individuals.” The researchers are calling for greater attention to be paid “both in the initial clinical assessment and ongoing reassessment of both celiac disease and anorexia nervosa, especially in patients not responding to traditional therapy.”