How the Complications That Accompany Anorexia Attack the Body
The long term health risks of Anorexia Nervosa’s on a person’s health can be brutal. Even before the physical effects of this eating disorder become apparent, it begins to attack nearly every system in the human body. Like an aggressive form of cancer, it won’t stop until it wins. The disease has the highest mortality rate of all mental health disorders. As many as 20 percent of the people who suffer from anorexia will eventually die from it. And the longer a person suffers from anorexia, the greater their risk of dying becomes. Because some of the complications that come with anorexia can last a lifetime, the timeline for detection, intervention, and treatment can be crucial for recovery.
The Long Term Health Risks of Anorexia
Anorexia Nervosa is taken very seriously in the mental health community because the damage it inflicts extends to nearly every part of the body. These effects can range from minor infections and poor general health to serious life-threatening medical problems. Because it often strikes young people, some of these conditions may carry over into adulthood and last an entire lifetime.
“A lot of people -parents, and even some doctors- think that medical complications of anorexia only happen when you’re so thin you’re wasting away,” Rebecka Peebles, MD, a specialist in adolescent medicine at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, told WebMD: “Practitioners need to understand that a good therapist is only part of the treatment for anorexia and other eating disorders and that these clients need treatment from a medical doctor as well.”
Adolescents and teens with anorexia have a high risk for other mental disorders such as anxiety and depression. Patients who suffer from anorexia are also at risk for suicidal behavior or attempts. According to Time magazine, studies show that the risk of death by suicide among by anorexic women is 57 times the expected rate of other women. Alcohol and drug abuse may be common among clients with anorexia nervosa as well.
Typically, heart disease is the major cause of death in people with severe anorexia nervosa. One of the most common negative effects of anorexia is Bradycardia. Bradycardia is an abnormal slowness of the heart rhythms, below 60 beats per minute. A normal resting rate can range anywhere from 60 to 100 beats per minute. When the flow of blood is reduced and blood pressure drops to a dangerous rate, the heart becomes weaker and shrinks to a smaller size.
One of the primary dangers to the heart stems from a lack of balance of necessary minerals such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphate. These minerals normally dissolve in body fluids. But with the dehydration and starvation that happens during this eating disorder, the reduction of fluids and mineral levels creates a condition called Electrolyte Imbalance. Some electrolytes, like calcium and potassium, are essential for producing the electrical currents the body needs to maintain a normal heartbeat. That’s why an imbalance of electrolytes can be so dangerous. This can result in a life-endangering condition if these fluids and minerals aren’t replaced. Heart complications are a greater risk when anorexia is compounded by behaviors associated with bulimia and the use of ipecac, a drug that induces vomiting.
One of the top long-term health risks of anorexia has to do with our bones. Nearly 90 percent of women with anorexia experience a condition known as Osteopenia, which translates to a loss of bone calcium. Up to 40 percent of the people that suffer from anorexia may also face Osteoporosis, which means an advanced loss of bone density. More than two-thirds of children and adolescent girls with anorexia do not develop strong bones during their critical growing period. Boys with anorexia also frequently suffer from stunted growth. The less a patient weighs, the more severe the bone loss will be.
“There’s a narrow window of time to accrue bone mass to last a lifetime,” says Diane Mickley, MD, co-president of the National Eating Disorders Association. “You’re supposed to be pouring in bone, and you’re losing it instead.” This bone loss may begin as early as six months after anorexic behavior begins. This is one of the most irreversible complications of the disease.
Women and Girls
Women with anorexia who also binge-purge experience an even higher risk for bone loss. For women, this bone loss is primarily due to a drop in estrogen levels that occurs with anorexia. Other biological factors may contribute to bone loss. These may include high levels of stress hormones. This limits bone growth. Other contributing factors are low calcium levels and DHEA hormones, or dehydroepiandrosterone. Unfortunately, weight restoration does not completely restore bone development. For females, a rapid return to regular menstruation cycles is the key to preventing permanent bone loss. The longer that anorexia persists the more likely the bone loss will be permanent.
In boys, testosterone levels become lower as they lose weight, and this also affects bone density. Boys with anorexia may also suffer from stunted growth because of this. Weight restoration may produce some growth, but it may not produce the full growth that would normally occur.
In severe cases, the long-term health risks of anorexia may result in suffering nerve damage that affects the brain and other parts of the body. As a result, these nervous system conditions can include:
- Disordered thinking
- Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet (peripheral neuropathy)
Brain scans of people with anorexia reveal that the brain goes through structural changes or abnormal activity during the disease. Some of these abnormalities may discontinue weight restoration, but some of the damage to the brain can be permanent.
Due to starvation, one of the most common conditions related to anorexia is anemia. A major blood problem is created by dangerously low levels of vitamin B12. When anorexia becomes extreme, the bone marrow dramatically drops the production of blood cells. The condition is known as Pancytopenia, and it too can be life-threatening.
Anorexia puts incredible stress on the digestive system. Stomach bloating and constipation are very common among people with anorexia. Because anorexia often pairs with bulimic behaviors, the purging, or vomiting this involves can expose the digestive system to excess stomach acid and lead to conditions such as reflux esophagitis.
In very late stages of severe anorexia, the body’s organs simply stop working. The first major indications of organ failure are often high blood levels of liver enzymes. To reverse this requires an immediate intake of calories.
Hormones and Fertility
The hormonal changes that come with anorexia can have severe health consequences. For women, reproductive hormone levels are significantly lower.
Stress hormones may increase, but thyroid levels usually drop. After treatment and weight restoration, estrogen levels may return to normal and period cycles can resume. However, in some extreme cases, even after treatment, normal menstruation cycles never return.
If a woman with anorexia becomes pregnant before weight restoration, she has a higher risk for a miscarriage, a cesarean section delivery, and a baby with a low birth weight or birth defects. Women with anorexia also have greater odds of experiencing postpartum depression. Because of the impact on the reproductive system, women with anorexia who attempt fertility treatments generally have lower chances for success.
Among young people with type one diabetes, low blood sugar is a major risk.
Diabulimia, a disorder in which clients deliberately forgo or reduce their daily doses of insulin to reduce their weight, is particularly dangerous. Very high blood sugar levels may cause diabetic ketoacidosis, a condition that causes ketones, or acidic chemicals, to accumulate in the body. This condition can produce comas or death.
Recovery is Possible
The good news, is that some of these physical complications can be reversed if the person with anorexia returns to a normal weight. “The real focus has to be on weight restoration if you want to reverse outcomes,” Dr. Peebles explains. “That’s the most essential part of treatment. You can’t wait around for it to happen. It really is an essential first step in treatment and recovery.”
Center for Discovery Can Help
If you, or someone you love, suffer from the long-term health risks of anorexia or another eating disorder, call Center for Discovery immediately at 800.760.3934. Clearly, the effects of anorexia and other eating disorders are severe, and they can be life threatening. We’ve been guiding families to long-lasting recovery for nearly 20 years. Our personalized behavior modification programs are tailored to fit your family’s needs.
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Web MD: Anorexia: The Body Neglected, by Gina Shaw. Retrieved November 18, 2016.
New York Times – Health Guide: Complications of anorexia. Retrieved November 18, 2016.
Time: Suicidal Anorexics: Determined to Die? by Kathleen Kingsbury. Retrieved November 18, 2016.
Eating Disorder Hope: How Dangerous Are The Long Term Effects of Anorexia? by Debra Cooper. Retrieved November 18, 2016.