Eating disorders are serious, potentially life-threatening conditions that affect a person’s emotional and physical health. They are not just a “fad” or a “phase.” They are real, complex, and devastating conditions that can have serious consequences for health, productivity, and relationships.
In anorexia nervosa’s cycle of self-starvation, the body is denied the essential nutrients it needs to function normally. Thus, the body is forced to slow down all of its processes to conserve energy, resulting in serious medical consequences:
- Abnormally slow heart rate and low blood pressure, which mean that the heart muscle is changing. The risk for heart failure rises as the heart rate and blood pressure levels sink lower and lower.
- Reduction of bone density (osteoporosis), which results in dry, brittle bones.
- Muscle loss and weakness.
- Severe dehydration, which can result in kidney failure.
- Fainting, fatigue, and overall weakness.
- Dry hair and skin; hair loss is common.
- Growth of a downy layer of hair called lanugo all over the body, including the face, in an effort to keep the body warm.
The recurrent binge-and-purge cycles of bulimia can affect the entire digestive system and can lead to electrolyte and chemical imbalances in the body that affect the heart and other major organ functions. Some of the health consequences of bulimia nervosa include:
- Electrolyte imbalances that can lead to irregular heartbeats and possibly heart failure and death. Electrolyte imbalance is caused by dehydration and loss of potassium, sodium and chloride from the body as a result of purging behaviors.
- Potential for gastric rupture during periods of bingeing.
- Inflammation and possible rupture of the esophagus from frequent vomiting.
- Tooth decay and staining from stomach acids released during frequent vomiting.
- Chronic irregular bowel movements and constipation as a result of laxative abuse.
- Peptic ulcers and pancreatitis.
Binge eating disorder often results in many of the same health risks associated with clinical obesity. Some of the potential health consequences of binge eating disorder include:
- High blood pressure.
- High cholesterol levels.
- Heart disease as a result of elevated triglyceride levels.
- Type II diabetes mellitus.
- Gallbladder disease.
All eating disorders are associated with increased risk of mortality, including death caused by the eating disorder behaviors themselves, substance abuse or suicide, and death from general causes such as cancer, likely because eating disorders impact the immune system. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental health condition.
All of these risks are scary, but treatment is available and recovery is possible. If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, reach out to find help. One option is the NEDA helpline at (800) 931-2237.