FARGO — The teeming communities of bacteria, fungi and viruses dwelling in our gastrointestinal tracts — the gut microbiome — have been linked to depression and anxiety.

An increasing body of research is finding there is a profound connection, in fact, between our digestive tracts and our behavioral health — the so-called gut-brain axis.

There are some indications that the gut microbiome could be implicated in stress eating, which increases a person’s risk of becoming overweight or obese.

A team of researchers at Sanford Health in Fargo and North Dakota State University have received a $2.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the impact of the gut microbiome on stress eating and the risk for developing obesity.

The research seeks to answer whether certain types of bacteria could be involved in stress eating, said Kristine Steffen, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at NDSU.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

“We know the bacteria in your gut can impact a lot of conditions,” she said. “Essentially, what we’re looking to see is if there’s a common group of bacteria that relates to stress.”

Stress has long been known to cause unhealthy eating habits, but the reasons underlying the behavior have been elusive, Steffen said.

“For some patients, it is a factor, probably one of many factors,” she said.

Poor eating habits become a problem when they impair health. “We call it problematic eating,” Steffen said, involving poor food choices, such as junk food, and overeating, including binge eating.

Once ready, possibly in January, the researchers will be looking to recruit 100 subjects for the study. Those eligible will be overweight or obese and generally fairly healthy.

“We’ll look in the community, primarily” the Fargo-Moorhead area, Steffen said. After initial screening via computer, prospective study participants will be screened in person. Their involvement will include a lab visit and a “naturalistic assessment period.”

Using smartphones, participants will log what they eat as part of the research.

Scott Engel is a Co-Director for the Center for Biobehavioral Research and shows the ReTAINE tool used for research assessments. David Samson / The Forum
Scott Engel is a Co-Director for the Center for Biobehavioral Research and shows the ReTAINE tool used for research assessments. David Samson / The Forum

A unique aspect of the study will be to capture the participants’ food intake and their emotional state, including the “reward value” of food, in real time. The degree to which people regard food as a reward has been shown to play a role in disordered eating behavior, said Scott Engel, a health and social psychologist at Sanford Health and co-principal investigator in the study.

Most studies involving eating disorders rely upon participants accurately recalling what they had eaten and their emotional state at the time. “These studies have been helpful, but are limited,” potentially yielding skewed results, Engel said.

Participants will be exposed to a known stressor and their blood levels of cortisol, which increases in response to stress, will be measured in a series of readings to gauge their response to stress.

Engel and Steffen have collaborated on earlier research, including the adverse effects following bariatric weight-loss surgery. They documented that a significant minority are at increased risk to develop alcohol use disorder, and that the risk increases over time. The gut microbiome may play a role, although that’s not been determined.

The researchers plan to begin enrolling study participants in January. Those interested in participating in the study can call the Sanford Center for Biobehavioral Research at 701-293-1335 in January.

The grant is for four years, at the end of which the findings will become available. Ultimately, the researchers hope their findings will help lead to treatments.

“We’re always looking for targets for prevention or intervention,” Steffen said. “It’s really unclear yet what the exact therapeutic implications of this research will be, but the microbiome, stress level and the way we respond to stress are all potential targets for prevention or treatment that may ultimately impact eating behavior.”