Anorexia Health Problems: Complications of Anorexia
Anorexia nervosa (anorexia information), a serious eating disorder, can have dire medical complications. The severe restriction of calories does not provide the body the fuel needed to function normally. As a result, it goes into starvation mode, conserving energy by shutting down non-essential processes. Anorexia health problems include a range of medical and psychological conditions, some of which are life-threatening.
Anorexia Health Problems
The first physical signs of anorexia include:
- lack of energy
- feeling cold all of the time
Other physical effects of eating disorders include loss of menstrual periods in women and skin that becomes yellowed and dry. If the disorder remains untreated, further anorexia health problems will occur, such as:
- abdominal pain
- growth of fine hair covering the body and face
Additional physical effects and complications of anorexia include insomnia, restlessness, headaches, dizziness and fainting. The malnutrition caused by a severely restricted diet causes damage to the teeth, gums, esophagus and larynx.
As the behaviors associated with anorexia continue and more body fat is lost, the medical complications become more severe. The anorexia complications can progress into heart problems, kidney damage, and even death. Conditions causing death in those with extreme anorexia include heart disease and multi-organ failure, which happens in very late stages of anorexia and is typically caused by high levels of liver enzymes in the blood.
Anorexia Health Problems Affecting the Heart
Heart disease is the most common medical cause of death for those with severe anorexia nervosa. Anorexia can cause a range of heart effects, including slow heart rhythms. Known as bradycardia, this symptom even shows up in teens with anorexia. A heart rate under 60 beats per minute leads to reduced blood flow and dangerously low blood pressure. The heart is significantly affected by the loss of minerals due to reduced consumption of food, leading to electrolyte imbalance. Many of these electrolytes, such as calcium and potassium, are essential for regulating the heartbeat. Unless the fluids and minerals are replaced quickly, electrolyte imbalance can be a serious, life-threatening condition.
Other blood problems are also common, including anemia, caused by low levels of vitamin B12 in the blood. Extreme anorexia causes the bone marrow to reduce the production of blood cells. This life-threatening complication of anorexia is known as pancytopenia.1
Hormone Changes Caused by Anorexia
Hormonal changes are one of the most serious health complications of anorexia. Changes in hormones that regulate growth, stress, thyroid function, and reproduction have wide-ranging consequences. Long-term, anorexia can result in stunted growth, hair loss, infertility, bone loss (osteoporosis), and irregular or absent menstruation.
Bone loss, including loss of bone calcium or bone density, is one of the most common anorexia health problems, affecting nearly 90 percent of women with anorexia. Children and teens with anorexia fail to develop strong bones and face stunted growth due to malnutrition during critical growth stages. Weight gain will not completely restore the bone, and the longer the eating disorder persists, the more bone damage is likely.
Complications of Anorexia Affecting Fertility and Pregnancy
In cases of severe anorexia, patients may never regain normal menstrual cycles. If women with anorexia become pregnant before returning to a normal weight, risks include increased incidences of miscarriage, cesarean section, and postpartum depression. Her child is at risk of low birth weight and birth defects.
Complications of Anorexia with Type 1 Diabetes
Eating disorders are particularly serious for those who also have Type 1 diabetes, which is significantly affected by the low blood sugar caused by skipping meals. Some patients may skip daily insulin in order to further reduce their caloric intake, resulting in dangerously high blood sugar levels, which can cause coma or death.
Neurological Symptoms of Anorexia
Severe anorexia can cause nerve damage, resulting in conditions such as seizures, disordered thinking or strange sensations in the feet or hands. Brain scans provide evidence that parts of the brain may undergo permanent or long-term structural changes due anorexia.
Psychological Complications of Anorexia
Although the physical complications of anorexia are most visible, it is important not to overlook the possible emotional and psychological effects of this disorder. Those who are living with anorexia often develop severe mood swings, depression, and thoughts of suicide. Eating disorders are also tied to feelings of anxiety or guilt. Those with anorexia will often isolate themselves from others in order to hide their eating habits and the extent of the problem. They may feel out of control or helpless to do anything about the problem. Anorexia is also tied to obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. Because of changes in the brain as a result of long-term anorexia, patients with this eating disorder may have difficulty weighing priorities and making logical choices.
Last Updated: 14 May 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD