Stress is known to influence risk and progression of eating disorders (EDs). However, studies investigating physiological and psychological stress responses under laboratory conditions in patients with Anorexia nervosa or Bulimia nervosa are scarce and often produce conflicting findings. We therefore aimed to compare the neuroendocrine and affective stress response in ED inpatients and healthy controls.
Twenty-eight female inpatients with Anorexia or Bulimia nervosa and 26 healthy women were exposed to the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST). Salivary cortisol and alpha-amylase (sAA) levels were assessed before as well as repeatedly after stress exposure, while heart rate and heart rate variability were determined before and during the TSST. Negative affective state was assessed at baseline and post-TSST.
Compared to healthy controls, ED patients showed blunted cortisol stress responses combined with overall attenuated sAA levels. The latter was reflected in generally enhanced parasympathetic activity indicated by lower heart rate and stronger high-frequency heart rate variability throughout the TSST. Although patients reported more negative affect overall, they did not differ in their affective stress response.
In summary, patients suffering from eating disorders show a blunted HPA axis reactivity to stress exposure and a generally reduced sympathetic/exaggerated parasympathetic nervous system activity. This combination may contribute to elevated health risks seen in eating disorder patients, such as enhanced inflammatory activity, and thus provide insight into the underlying stress-related mechanisms.