New research published in the December issue of Eating Behaviors shows a possible link between bulimia and the ability to detect one’s own heartbeat. The study found that women who suffered from the eating disorder were less likely to accurately detect their own heartbeat, and thus, may have difficulty detecting other internal cues such as hunger or fullness. From an Inside Stanford Medicine story:
A growing body of literature shows that heightened or suppressed interoception [which is the ability to sense internal body cues] is either a contributor to or a product of many psychiatric disorders. For example, anxiety patients tend to be particularly sensitive to their own heartbeat. They are more likely to accurately detect their own heartbeat than those without anxiety.
This is the first study to use the heartbeat detection task to assess interoception in recovered bulimia nervosa patients, [Megan Klabunde, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar at the Stanford Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research], said. Previous studies have asked participants to rate their own ability to detect hunger and satiety.
Klabunde said it is unclear whether diminished interoception is a contributing factor to the development of the bulimia, or a consequence of repeated binging and purging.
However, she feels that bulimia and other eating disorders are not purely driven by a vain desire for thinness. "I come from a philosophy that, in terms of psychiatric disorders, symptoms are there for a reason. And if we don't understand the symptom, it means we need to research it better," Klabunde said.
Klabunde plans to continue to study interoception in the context of eating disorders and says this work could lead to potential new therapies for eating disorders. "The body is clearly involved in emotional processing," Klabunde said. "We might have to be more creative in terms of how we address the body in treating psychiatric disorders."