Mental Side Effects of Anorexia

Anorexia can cause mood changes, depression, and a variety of mental health side effects. It is an eating disorder and a serious mental illness. As a complex disorder, anorexia has both physical and mental signs and side effects. 

Patient at doctor's office

When someone has anorexia, they will use excessive exercise, food restriction, or other means to lose weight. With anorexia, there is often an intense fear of gaining weight as well as a distorted body image that will lead a person to believe they are overweight even if they are actually underweight. 

People with anorexia are often obsessed with their weight. As they refuse to maintain a healthy body weight, anorexia has a host of effects on mental health.

Mental illness

Mental Signs of Anorexia

While it is often perceived that anorexia can be diagnosed outwardly due to severe weight loss and an extremely thin and sickly appearance, this is not always the case. People with anorexia can be of any weight, gender, age, and ethnicity. 

Frequently, spotting anorexia begins with recognizing the mental signs of the disorder. These include the following:

  • Mood changes
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Low self-image and self-esteem
  • Obsession with food, food preparation, and weight
  • Food rituals, refusing to eat certain foods, and unusual eating habits
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Increased secrecy
  • Significant fear of weight gain or being overweight
  • Feelings of ineffectiveness
  • A need for control
  • Inflexible thinking
  • Concerns about eating in public
  • Mental confusion
  • Memory issues
  • Trouble making sound decisions or processing things correctly

What Can Anorexia Do to the Brain?

Anorexia leads to malnutrition, which can impact the function of the central nervous system and even the structure and chemical makeup of the brain. 

Anorexia can trigger a chemical imbalance involving the brain’s chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters, which are involved in feelings of pleasure, reward processing, and appetite regulation. When the brain is deprived of the nutrients it needs to function properly, it can slow down, stop working as well, and even “shrink,” leading to a reduction in brain size and shape

Anorexia can change the structure of the brain. It can lead to depression, anxiety, irritability, problems thinking clearly, memory lapses, difficulty processing and making good decisions, and trouble feeling pleasure and handling rewards properly. 

Fortunately, most of anorexia’s effects on the brain can be reversed with treatment, especially if treatment starts early.

How Does Anorexia Cause Behavioral Changes?

Someone with anorexia will spend a majority of time determining how to lose weight, obsessing over their current weight, restricting food and calorie intake, and being afraid of gaining weight. Social and behavioral changes are required to facilitate or maintain weight loss. 

Skipping meals, refusing to eat, avoiding social situations where there is eating, and engaging in excessive exercise are common behavioral changes for anorexia. 

Social situations and events become less important to the person as their weight loss efforts take priority. Someone with anorexia will often spend more and more time alone with a substantial amount of their effort focused on losing weight.

How Can You Spot the Mental Effects of Anorexia?

Early intervention and treatment are important for a healthy and enhanced recovery from anorexia. It is important to spot the mental effects of anorexia since it is not always possible to see the physical impact of the disorder.

These are some things to watch for:

  • Mood swings and changes
  • Increased irritability and low mood
  • Sleep troubles
  • Lack of interest in socializing 
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Changes in eating and exercise habits
  • Skipping meals 
  • Drastic diet alterations and food restrictions
  • Distorted view of self 
  • Continual comments about dieting, weight and weight loss, and “burning” off calories
  • Mental confusion, memory issues, and sluggish thoughts

How Does Anorexia Treatment Address Mental Health?

Treatment for anorexia should be comprehensive and address both the physical and emotional aspects of the disorder. Treatment will often include behavioral therapy, group therapy, and family therapy with the goal of changing the way a person thinks and feels about food and their body. The goal is to develop a healthier relationship with food and eating. 

Support groups can also help to provide a healthy outlet where similar individuals can meet and discuss coping mechanisms, learn strategies for recovery, and get support to maintain a healthy weight. 

Anorexia treatment will address the mental component of the disorder as well as the physical effects. In treatment, individuals can gain the necessary tools and support to sustain recovery by enhancing self-esteem and self-image.


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  2. Keeler J, Lambert E, Olivola M, Owen J, Xia J, Thuret S, Himmerich,…Treasure J. (2021). Lower Pattern Recognition Memory Scores in Anorexia Nervosa. Journal of Eating Disorders; 9(49).
  3. Jones M, Brown T. Why Early Intervention for Eating Disorders is Essential. (2022). Why Early Intervention for Eating Disorders Is Essential. National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).
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Last Update | 09 - 16 - 2022

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