There is no way to sugarcoat the fact that individuals with anorexia nervosa are at higher risk for severe medical complications. Anorexia behaviors involve severe restriction of food and fluids, which deplete the body of nutrients and electrolytes that are necessary for optimal body function.
What remains is a starved body and brain that is at high risk for medical issues. Individuals that struggle with anorexia experience an “elevated risk of developing cardiac events due to early arteriosclerotic damage,” IE: hardening of the arteries, and venous stasis, which makes it difficult for blood to return to the heart from the legs .
Anorexia & the Cardiovascular System
Anorexia behaviors take a severe toll on the body. As individuals consume fewer calories, the body breaks down its own tissue to use for fuel, pulling from the muscles first.
This is key to understanding the cardiovascular impact of malnourishment because the heart is the most important muscle in the body. As this occurs, the “pulse and blood pressure begin to drop as the heart has less fuel to pump blood and fewer cells to pump with .”
Malnourishment severely impacts the body’s electrolytes such as potassium, “ which plays an important role in helping the heartbeat and muscles contract .” “Electrolyte imbalances can lead to irregular heartbeats and possibly heart failure and death .”
Anorexia Nervosa & Heart Attacks/Stroke
As frightening as it is to discuss, it is important to be aware of the dangerous risks involved with anorexia nervosa behaviors. Anorexia has the largest mortality rate of any mental illness, and “half of the deaths are sudden cardiac deaths” that are “the result of cardiac arrhythmias .”
A recent study considered how anorexia behaviors are related to experiences of ischemic strokes, which “occurs when a vessel supplying blood to the brain is obstructed .” The tendency of individuals with anorexia nervosa to experience vascular issues puts them at high risk for suffering an ischemic stroke .” All of this is very scary but must be considered in treating those with anorexia nervosa, as it isn’t only about ceasing behaviors but healing the body from the inside out.
Nourishing to Heal
For those recovering from anorexia nervosa, healing the body through nourishment is crucial to healing the heart and improving blood flow. It is less important to attempt to consider specific “heart-healthy” foods in nourishment and simply consider overall nourishment and weight restoration, as this will help the entire body to heal, including the heart.
This is not an easy task as eating disorders are much more complex than simply eating the food. However, having an awareness of how a lack of nourishment impacts body processes can help motivate an individual to engage in nourishment in order to heal.
Resources Mimura, Y. Et al (2021). Case series: ischemic stroke associated with dehydration and arteriosclerosis in individuals with severe anorexia nervosa. Journal of Eating Disorders, 9:39.  Unknown (2021). Health consequences. National Eating Disorders Association. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/health-consequences.  Unknown (2014). Cardiovascular complications of eating disorders. McCallum Place, Retrieved from https://www.mccallumplace.com/about/blog/cardiovascular-complications-eating-disorders/.  Unknown (2021). Ischemic stroke. American Stroke Association. Retrieved from https://www.stroke.org/en/about-stroke/types-of-stroke/ischemic-stroke-clots.
About the Author:
Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.
As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published April 21, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on April 21, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC