Whether you’re living with bulimia nervosa (BN), anorexia nervosa (AN), binge eating disorder (BED), orthorexia nervosa (ON), or any other eating disorder, you’re likely suffering from a complicated, and life-altering condition that can have serious consequences on your day-to-day life and your health and wellbeing.
Leaving an eating disorder untreated, can result in tremendous eating disorder complications for your physical, and mental health. Not to mention, the impact an eating disorder can have on your personal relationships, work, school, and social life. It is therefore, so important to get the help you need, as soon as you need it.
Common eating disorder complications
Just as each eating disorder has both similar and differing behaviors, the impact of eating disorder complications may vary person to person. However, despite these differences, there are no eating disorder side effects or complications that are not concerning or potentially dangerous.
It would be difficult to communicate in detail all the health consequences of each eating disorder. Instead, let’s take a look at some of the more common effects eating disorders can have on the key organ systems of your body.
While the average human brain only weighs three pounds, it consumes up to one-fifth of the body’s calories. Inconsistent or insufficient nutrition means that the brain isn’t getting the energy it requires. This can lead to difficulty focusing, concentration, dizziness, and fainting.
For neurons to function properly, they require an insulating layer of lipids to conduct electricity. If a person is restricting their fat intake it can damage this protective layer, which can cause tingling and numbness in the feet, hands, and other extremities.
Further effects of eating disorders on the neurological system include: (1)
- Difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep due to extreme hunger or fullness
- Sleep apnea, a condition where a person regularly stops breathing while asleep
- Seizures and muscle cramps, due to the effect electrolyte imbalances have on neurons
It’s quite common for people living with an eating disorder to suffer issues with their heart health and cardiovascular function. These impairments can be life-threatening. In fact, heart failure causes approximately one-third of anorexia deaths. (2)
Long-term calorie restriction causes the body to break down its own tissues to use for fuel. Muscles are some of the first tissues to be broken down, including the heart. With less fuel to pump blood and fewer cells to do it with, blood pressure and heart rate begin to drop lower and lower. The lower the heart rate and blood pressure sinks, the higher the risk of heart failure. (1)
Purging behaviors–such as vomiting and/or diuretic/laxative use–can also impact cardiovascular health. These behaviors lead to dehydration and metabolic disturbances–such as low blood levels of potassium. And potassium plays an important role in helping the heart beat and muscles contract. (2, 3) Over time, electrolyte imbalances can lead to irregular heart rhythms, heart failure, and death.
Food restriction and/or purging by self-induced vomiting can interfere with normal stomach emptying. This slowed digestion is known as gastroparesis and can lead to stomach pain and bloating, nausea and vomiting, blocked intestines, and bacterial infections. (1)
Constipation is also a common consequence of eating disorders. It’s caused by insufficient food and nutrient intake, which results in not enough waste to eliminate, as well as weakened intestinal muscles that don’t have the strength to expel digested food out of the body. Furthermore, long-term use of laxatives can damage nerve endings, which renders the body dependent on laxatives to have a bowel movement. (1)
Frequent self-induced vomiting and binge eating can also seriously affect the gastrointestinal system. Binge eating, in extreme cases, can cause the stomach to rupture, which is life-threatening. Vomiting can cause a sore throat, swollen salivary glands, and in extreme cases, a ruptured esophagus.
Other consequences of eating disorders on the gastrointestinal system include: (1,4)
- Intestinal infections, blockages, or perforation
- Pancreatitis, which is an inflammation of the pancreas
- Heartburn, acid regurgitation, and gastrointestinal reflux disorder (GERD)
- Increased risk of esophageal cancer
- Rectal prolapse as a result of chronic constipation
In severe cases, the consequences of an eating disorder on the digestive system require a person to have colon surgery, dialysis, or use a colostomy bag.
Eating disorders affect the endocrine system in response to restriction and malnourishment, which results in fluctuations in the secretion of hormones to save energy. (5) Additionally, without enough fat in the diet, levels of key hormones can fall, including sex hormones and thyroid hormones. (1)
Reduced production of sex hormones can cause a host of health issues, including bone loss and the risk of broken bones and fractures, as well as menstruation to be delayed, irregular, or stopped completely.
It’s not just food restriction that can affect the endocrine system. Over time, binge eating can increase the chances of the body becoming resistant to insulin, which regulates blood sugar levels. This can lead to type II diabetes.
Additional potential health effects on the endocrine and reproductive system include: (1,5)
- Inability to recognize hunger and satiety cues
- Pregnancy complications
- Abnormal production of adrenal hormones, which can affect several bodily functions including metabolism, blood pressure, stress response, and immunity
Other health consequences of eating disorders
The health consequences of eating disorders don’t end there. Others include: (1,6,7)
- Increased risk of certain cancers
- Dry skin, brittle hair and nails, and hair loss
- Lanugo hair, the growth of fine downy hair to conserve warmth during periods of malnutrition
- Kidney failure, due to severe, prolonged dehydration
- Anemia from a lack of red blood cells and/or iron in the diet, which causes fatigue, shortness of breath, and weakness
- Reduced immune function
- Tooth decay, gum disease, and other dental problems as a result of self-induced vomiting
Eating disorders are both physical and psychological in nature, and, therefore, so are their complications. These complex conditions affect both physical and mental well-being, impacting long-term health and quality of life. The earlier you seek treatment, the greater the likelihood of a full recovery, however, it’s never too late to start getting help.