Side Effects of Anorexia

Physical side effects of anorexia include significant weight loss, muscle and bone loss, fertility issues, a weakened immune system, and skin problems, among others. Some of the physical side effects can even lead to death without quick intervention and treatment.

Patient speaking with a doctor

Anorexia is the deliberate withholding of food and self-starvation, which can lead to significant malnutrition and a refusal to maintain healthy body weight.

General Side Effects of Anorexia

Anorexia is a serious mental health disorder that can have physical, emotional, and behavioral side effects. Someone who is anorexic will be obsessed with their weight and keep working to lose weight even when it is beyond healthy to do so. 

Side effects of anorexia include:

  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • A distorted body image
  • Intense fear of gaining weight

Often, a person with anorexia will have a bodyweight that is at least 15% lower than what is considered healthy for their height and age. This can take an extreme toll on the body, leading to the following issues:

  • Muscle and bone problems
  • Heart irregularities and blood vessel difficulties
  • Weakened immune system
  • Malnutrition
  • Brain and nerve problems
  • Fertility issues
  • Bowel, gastrointestinal, or kidney problems
  • Endocrine system issues
  • Dermatological changes

What Are the First Side Effects That Occur?

When you stop eating the necessary number of calories or giving your body proper nutrition, it can cause serious deficiencies and malnutrition. Typically, when you deprive your body of what it needs to function normally, it will work to conserve energy and slow down all of its normal processes. This can have a host of negative consequences. 

Intolerance to Cold

As blood flow slows down, intolerance to cold develops, and the fingers and ears can develop a bluish tint. The body will then begin to produce fine hairs, called lanugo, on the arms, chin, lips, and spine to try and conserve heat. The hair on the scalp will often fall out.

Digestive Issues

As body weight falls 15% to 20% below the healthy range, it can take longer for the stomach to empty. The digestive system will be sluggish, leading to bloating, stomach pain, and constipation.

Dehydration

Dehydration is an early sign of malnutrition and anorexia. Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) also occurs early on, which can lead to mood changes, headaches, difficulties thinking straight, and poor balance. 

Decrease in Sex Drive

Sex hormones are impacted, which can cause menstruation to stop in women and low levels of testosterone in men. Sex drive is often affected. 

Cognitive Issues

The brain and nervous system are affected, which can lead to problems concentrating, trouble with memory, processing issues, and poor decision-making and reasoning.

Patient and doctor

What Are the More Serious Side Effects of Anorexia?

Anorexia is one of the leading causes of death related to mental illness. The disorder can cause seizures related to prolonged hypoglycemia as well as congestive heart failure related to the damage starvation can do to the walls of the heart. Suicide is also a fatal risk factor for anorexia. 

People struggling with extreme anorexia almost always have low bone mineral density. Studies show that nearly half of people with anorexia also have anemia and elevated liver function tests, which can indicate hypoglycemia. More than half have a low white blood cell count (leukopenia). 

Around a third of all deaths associated with anorexia are related to cardiac causes, most of which are sudden deaths. Long-term malnutrition caused by anorexia can lead to serious heart irregularities, complications, and additional organ damage. Electrolyte imbalance from long-term dehydration can cause seizures, coma, or even death.

How Long Do Side Effects Last Once in Recovery?

The severity of the disorder and how long your body has been malnourished will impact recovery. You can often make a full physical recovery with the help of a professional treatment and refeeding program. 

Once you start to gain weight and put the proper nutrients back into your body, most of the negative physical side effects will reverse. You can often resolve most of your symptoms with about four to six weeks of recovery.

Potential Consequences of Not Getting Treatment for Anorexia

The most serious complication of not getting treatment for anorexia is death. 

Anorexia can often lead to sudden death without any forewarning. For this reason, it is extremely important to seek professional treatment as early as possible. 

Early intervention and treatment can speed up recovery and help your body and brain to heal faster. Ultimately, the sooner you get help, the better your long-term outcomes.

Resources


  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). (March 2022). Anorexia Nervosa.
  2. National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). (2022). Anorexia Nervosa.
  3. National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD). (2021). Eating Disorder Statistics.
  4. Gibson D, Watters A, Cost J, Mascolo M, Mehler PS. (2020). Extreme Anorexia Nervosa: Medical Findings, Outcomes, and Inferences from a Retrospective Cohort. Journal of Eating Disorders; 8:25.
  5. Sardar MR, Greway A, DeAngelis M, O’Malley Tystko E, Lehmann S, Wohlstetter M, Patel R. (2015). Cardiovascular Impact of Eating Disorders in Adults: A Single Center Experience and Literature Review. Heart Views; 16(3):88-92.
  6. Jones, M. (2022). Why Early Intervention for Eating Disorders Is Essential. National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).
  7. Gaudiani JL, Bogetz A, Yager J. (2022). Terminal Anorexia Nervosa: Three Cases and Proposed Clinical Characteristics. Journal of Eating Disorders; 10(23).
  8. Sidiropoulos M. (2007). Anorexia Nervosa: The Physiological Consequences of Starvation and the Need for Primary Prevention Efforts. McGill Journal of Medicine; 10(1):20-25.


Last Update | 10 - 31 - 2022

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