Objective: Free fatty acids (FFAs) exert a stimulatory effect on the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis in animals and inhibit spontaneous ACTH and cortisol secretion in humans. Patients with anorexia nervosa display concomitant HPA axis hyperactivity and increased lipolysis. We studied the effects of a lipid load on ACTH and cortisol secretion in patients with anorexia nervosa in comparison with normal subjects.
Design: Eight women with anorexia nervosa (ANW; means ± s.e.m.: 23.9 ± 2.3 years of age; body mass index (BMI): 14.9 ± 0.6 kg/m2) and seven normal women (NW; 25.6 ± 2.3 years of age; BMI: 22.8 ± 1.9 kg/m2) had FFA, ACTH, cortisol, glucose and insulin levels measured in the morning every 30 min for 180 min during i.v. saline or lipid-heparin emulsion (LHE) infusion.
Results: During saline infusion, ACTH and cortisol levels decreased spontaneously in both groups, ACTH and cortisol levels in ANW being higher than in NW. LHE infusion led to increased FFA levels in both groups (P < 0.005). The ACTH and cortisol decrease in NW was more marked than during saline infusion (P < 0.05). LHE infusion in ANW was associated with a more pronounced decrease in ACTH levels than during saline infusion (P < 0.05), while cortisol levels were unchanged. At the end of the LHE infusion, a progressive decrease in FFA levels was associated with an increase in ACTH and cortisol concentrations in NW (P < 0.05) but not in ANW in whom FFA levels decreased to a lesser extent (P < 0.05).
Conclusions: This study showed that corticotroph sensitivity to the inhibitory effect of an FFA load is preserved in patients with anorexia nervosa, in spite of persistent adrenal hyperactivity.