Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by abnormally low body weight, intense fear of weight gain, and a distorted perception of weight and one’s physical appearance. People with anorexia highly value having control over their weight, body shape, and what they eat, so much so that they will go to extreme efforts like restrictive eating, vomiting after eating, and misusing laxatives and other medications. Due to the compensatory behaviors for preventing weight gain, the list of anorexia nervosa health risks is extensive, making it one of the deadliest mental health disorders out there.
What Are the Health Risks of Anorexia Nervosa?
To prevent weight gain or to continue losing weight, people with anorexia nervosa may severely restrict the amount of food they eat or completely cut off certain food groups, such as carbs and sugars. They may also control their caloric intake by self-inducing vomiting following a meal, which is one of the most common warning signs of anorexia.
Individuals with anorexia may also attempt to prevent weight gain or lose more weight by misusing laxatives, diet aids, diuretics, or enemas. Excessive exercise is also a common symptom of anorexia, to the point where the individual may display bruises and experience pain from overexertion paired with malnutrition.
While the focus may seem like it’s on food, that’s not necessarily the case. Anorexia is mainly a group of behaviors exhibited to cope with psychological problems and have some form of control. Thus, many people with anorexia nervosa often have co-occurring mental health disorders, one of the most common being body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) or body dysmorphia.
Anorexia is one of the deadliest mental illnesses out there, so understanding the symptoms and common behaviors, as well as the long-term health risks, is crucial for spreading awareness and getting individual help. Below are the most common anorexia nervosa health risks.
Amenorrhea is the absence of menstruation or a period and is one of the most common effects of anorexia nervosa in women. Low body weight is the major cause of amenorrhea in people with anorexia, as it disrupts the body’s normal hormonal functions and leads to a chemical imbalance, which could halt ovulation altogether. Excessive exercise and stress can also cause similar problems, which is why many Olympic gymnasts don’t experience their menstrual cycles for months or even years at a time. In the long run, amenorrhea can impact the individual’s ability to become pregnant and even cause pre-menopausal symptoms such as night sweats or heat flashes and irritability.
Osteoporosis refers to the loss of bone density, causing the bones to become weak, brittle, and more susceptible to fracturing and breaking. People with low body weight produce low levels of estrogen, a hormone that has many roles, including helping the body absorb calcium. Without the proper amount of estrogen, the body struggles to absorb the calcium necessary to keep bones healthy. Unfortunately, osteoporosis is irreversible. However, if caught at the early stage when the condition is osteopenia, it can be reversed.
Bradycardia refers to an abnormally low heart rate – typically below 60 beats per minute. The malnutrition associated with anorexia causes loss of muscle mass. Considering the heart itself is a muscle, it’s also heavily impacted to the point where it shrinks. When this happens, heart function slows.
Unfortunately, an abnormally low heart rate can lead to abnormal heart rhythms, which can lead to sudden cardiac arrest. This is especially true for individuals with heart rates in the 40 beats-per-minute range or lower.
Hypoglycemia is caused by low blood sugar (glucose). Glucose is the body’s main source of energy, and a certain amount of it is required for proper function. Hypoglycemia occurs when the body doesn’t have enough sustenance to produce glucose, which can lead to complications like mood swings, confusion, seizures, and even loss of consciousness.
Hair loss is a common by-product of malnutrition in people with anorexia nervosa. Malnutrition depletes the body of essential proteins necessary to perform all its functions. When the body is malnourished, it will prioritize what little protein it has to perform essential functions that keep the individual alive and stop performing functions that aren’t needed. One of these non-essential functions is hair production, which can lead to hair loss.
Lanugo hair is a soft peach fuzz that grows on the chest, face, and arms of people who are not receiving enough sustainable nutrients. Usually only seen in infants in the womb and newborns, lanugo is the body’s way of producing extra insulation and warmth for the first few weeks of life. Afterward, body fat takes over and provides us with the warmth and insulation we need. However, people with anorexia often develop lanugo because they don’t have enough body fat to keep their bodies insulated and warm.
In addition to the main health risks listed above, other typical anorexia nervosa effects on body and brain function include:
- Fatigue and lack of energy
- Skin problems
- Dizziness and headaches
- Shortness of breath
- Cold hands and feet
- Stomach pains
- Decreased metabolic rate
- Edema (water retention)
- Low testosterone in males
- Low blood sugar
- Kidney and liver damage
- Electrolyte imbalances
- Cathartic colon from laxative abuse
- Low potassium (the most common cause of nocturnal cardiac arrest)
The good news is that most of these anorexia nervosa health risks are treatable and reversible with the proper care. If you or someone you care about has anorexia, early intervention is key to recovery.
As one of the deadliest disorders in the world, anorexia nervosa presents major physical and psychological risks that must be addressed in a professional medical setting. If you’re searching for the best kind of care for yourself or a loved one, our Philadelphia eating disorder clinic is here to help.
We offer anorexia nervosa treatment as well as other disorder-specific programs, including bulimia nervosa treatment, binge eating disorder treatment, and more. No matter how long you’ve been on this road, we can help change your course.