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Anorexia's effect on your organs

Anorexia nervosa (AN) is a serious mental health disorder, but the condition nearly always manifests as a number of physical complications.

Nearly every internal system is impacted by the disordered eating patterns connected to AN. And as the condition goes on, this can lead to organ damage, and, in severe and prolonged cases, multi-organ failure.

A combination of nutritional therapy and psychotherapy are generally needed to ensure a full recovery from these detrimental effects. But eating an adequate quantity and variety of foods can help restore many organ functions, help prevent further damage, and enable an overall sense of healing.

 minute read
Last updated on 
July 26, 2023
July 25, 2023
Anorexia effects on your organs
In this article

Types of anorexia organ damage

Anorexia nervosa involves the extreme limitation of food, and this can result in many different and simultaneous vitamin and mineral deficiencies, as well as overall malnutrition.1

These deficiencies can impact organ function and contribute to some of the serious medical complications that may result from anorexia nervosa.

Anorexia and the heart
Gastrointestinal issues related to anorexia
Anorexia and brain health
Liver issues caused by anorexia
Anorexia and the kidneys


Signs of organ failure

Organ failure can happen suddenly or gradually, and look or feel different, depending on which organs are struggling.

Like other eating disorders, anorexia nervosa can cause issues with any number of organs. But there are some common signs to look out for which may indicate a developing problem, including:12

  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Drowsiness or sluggishness
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Difficulty concentrating or confusion
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fever or chills
  • Swelling in the abdomen or extremities
  • Persistent chest or abdominal pain
  • A yellow tint to skin or eyes (jaundice)
  • A bluish tint to the lips or under the fingernails (cyanosis)

It's important to note that organ failure doesn't necessarily mean an organ has stopped working. Rather, the phrase is used to indicate that the organ is not working up to full capacity—or "failing" to do its entire job.

Chronic organ failure progresses over time, in stages, while acute organ failure happens suddenly, usually caused by a specific event.12 And since the organs are all so interwoven, it's possible that issues with one could lead to issues with another.

Organ failure is a serious issue, and if you or a loved one are experiencing any signs, you should seek medical treatment immediately.

Finding help for anorexia nervosa

If you or a loved one are struggling with anorexia nervosa, it's important to seek out help. A timely approach to treatment can help prevent some of the worst organ damage caused by AN, including end stage renal disease and other serious issues.

The important thing to remember is that help is always available. And the right kind of treatment can not only ease symptoms of organ damage, but help you feel better on a physical, mental, and emotional level.

It is never too late to reach out for support and begin the healing process. 

Call for a free consult

How to prevent organ damage from anorexia nervosa

The best way to prevent the organ damage caused by anorexia nervosa is to address the AN itself. This is generally done through a combination of therapeutic approaches, which target both the psychological and physical symptoms of AN.

The refeeding process is the most dangerous part of recovery for individuals with anorexia nervosa. Electrolyte imbalances and other issues caused by starvation can potentially lead to refeeding syndrome, a serious condition that can potentially be fatal. It's important to seek out proper medical care to ensure weight restoration is done at a safe and healthy pace.

Luckily, a majority of the organ damage caused by AN can be reversed with healthy weight gain. That's why, even with such an insidious eating disorder, hope is always possible.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.


  1. Hanachi, M., Dicembre, M., Rives-Lange, C., Ropers, J., Bemer, P., Zazzo, J. F., Poupon, J., Dauvergne, A., & Melchior, J. C. (2019). Micronutrients Deficiencies in 374 Severely Malnourished Anorexia Nervosa Inpatients. Nutrients, 11(4), 792.
  2. Casiero, D., & Frishman, W. H. (2006). Cardiovascular complications of eating disorders. Cardiology in Review, 14(5), 227–231.
  3. Hundemer, G., Clarke, A., Akbari, A., et. al. (2022). Analysis of Electrolyte Abnormalities in Adolescents and Adults and Subsequent Diagnosis of an Eating Disorder. JAMA Network, 5(11), e2240809.
  4. Forney, K. J., Buchman-Schmitt, J. M., Keel, P. K., & Frank, G. K. (2016). The medical complications associated with purging. The International Journal of Eating Disorders, 49(3), 249–259.
  5. Gurevich, E., Steiling, S., & Landau, D. (2021). Incidence of impaired kidney function among adolescent patients hospitalized with anorexia nervosa. JAMA Network Open, 4(11).
  6. Malczyk, Ż., & Oświęcimska, J. M. (2017). Gastrointestinal complications and refeeding guidelines in patients with anorexia nervosa. Psychiatria Polska, 51(2), 219–229.
  7. Santonicola, A., Gagliardi, M., Guarino, M., Siniscalchi, M., Ciacci, C., & Iovino, P. (2019). Eating Disorders and Gastrointestinal Diseases. Nutrients, 11(12), 3038.
  8. Kaufmann, L.-K., Hänggi, J., Jäncke, L., Baur, V., Piccirelli, M., Kollias, S., Schnyder, U., Martin-Soelch, C., & Milos, G. (2020). Age influences structural brain restoration during weight gain therapy in anorexia nervosa. Translational Psychiatry, 10(1).
  9. Mehler, P. S., & Brown, C. (2015). Anorexia nervosa - medical complications. Journal of Eating Disorders, 3, 11.
  10. Rosen, E., Bakshi, N., Watters, A., Rosen, H. R., & Mehler, P. S. (2017). Hepatic Complications of Anorexia Nervosa. Digestive Diseases and Sciences, 62(11), 2977–2981.
  11. Marumoto, H., Sasaki, T., Tsuboi, N., Ito, T., Ishikawa, M., Ogura, M., Ikeda, M., & Yokoo, T. (2020). Kidney Disease Associated With Anorexia Nervosa: A Case Series With Kidney Biopsies. Kidney medicine, 2(4), 418–424.
  12. Organ failure. (n.d.). Cleveland Clinic. Accessed July 2023.


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