Electrolytes as Diagnostic Tool for Early Detection of Eating Disorders

New study finds analysis of electrolyte abnormalities can predict an eating disorder diagnosis over a year early, could provide better care for up to 1 million Canadians

Patients could receive treatment for eating disorders sooner after researchers from the University of Ottawa and The Ottawa Hospital identified the illness over a year before diagnosis by tracking electrolyte levels.

Dr. Gregory Hundemer and his team’s findings revealed that people with electrolyte abnormalities were twice as likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder at a later date. Those with severe irregularities were five times more likely to be diagnosed.

The case-control study, published in JAMA Network Open, analyzed Ontario health data between 2008 to 2020, with patients 13 years and older. Their discovery could lead to preventative treatment for approximately 1 million Canadians who suffer from diseases like anorexia and bulimia, which compromises their quality of life and often leads to death.

“Disordered eating patterns are often present well before the diagnosis of an eating disorder is made. This is due to a variety of reasons, including denial, lack of self-awareness, social stigma, and shame surround the diagnosis which may limit forthcoming discussion with healthcare providers and delay diagnosis,” said Dr. Hundemer, an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Medicine’s School of Epidemiology and Public Health. “This study shows that electrolyte abnormalities may serve as a red flag to identify individuals at high risk who may benefit from more timely in-depth screening into an eating disorder diagnosis.”

Electrolytes are minerals that can include potassium, sodium, magnesium, and phosphate along with acid-base disturbances. They are essential body minerals that help regulate your body’s chemical reactions, including maintaining the balance between fluids inside and outside of cells. Electrolyte abnormalities commonly occur well before an eating disorder diagnosis is made, leading Dr. Hundemer to zero in on these levels by screening targeted individuals.

“Eating disorders substantially reduce quality of life and increase the risk of health complications and death so timely screening results and earlier diagnosis and treatment can improve long-term prognosis,” said Dr. Hundemer, who is also a nephrologist at The Ottawa Hospital.

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