Anorexia Nervosa and Its Long-Term Repercussions

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Anorexia is a severe medical, physical, emotional, and mental disease. It affects all areas of the body both in the short and long-term.

Knowing what symptoms are part of your disorder can help you work with your treatment team and medical provider to be able to focus on how to reverse the physical and psychological damage.

How Anorexia Affects the Body

Anorexia affects all parts of the body. It changes the density and strength of bones, it weakens the immune system and causes malnourishment.

Bone loss can begin within six months of anorexia developing [1].

Another health consequence of anorexia is damage that is done to the heart. As the body starts to lose muscle mass from significant weight loss and malnourishment, the heart muscle will become smaller and weaker.

It can further weaken with the stress of exercise, increased pulse rate, and blood pressure can lower. Heart concerns and issues are the number one reason for hospitalization with anorexia [1].

Other areas of physical effects of anorexia are low white-blood-cell counts and anemia which can lower the immune system.

Difficulties or inability to conceive and bear children is another consequence. Many individuals would rather seek fertility treatment over eating disorder treatment.

Even if they are recovered, there is a higher risk of miscarriages and cesarean sections. Studies show that there is a potentially 30% higher rate of postpartum depression with those who have an eating disorder [1].

Anorexia and Long-Term Effects

Anorexia is an illness where the person is obsessed with extreme thinness, significant fear of gaining weight or being fat, and even with low body weight, they have a distorted view of their body weight and shape.

Woman running in the rainOften co-occurring disorders such as depression and anxiety are common [2].

It is believed that long-term effects of this disease may affect bone metabolism, reproductive function, gastrointestinal diseases, and metabolic functions.

The rate of premature births is significantly higher than the general population as are low weights in babies born to women who have a prior diagnosis of anorexia.

Studies on the duration of anorexia show that the average length of AN is typically four years, but at least 10% of women who have reported anorexia nervosa have struggled with the illness for over a decade [2].

Further research shows high rates of relapse as well. Of those who have received residential or hospitalization and reached complete weight restoration, at least 24% readmit for weight loss and relapse [2].

Body weight and composition is also a long-term effect of anorexia. When a sufferer is recovered, research suggests that weight and body composition tends to remain lower than the general population up to 10 years of sustained recovery.

Deposition of fat tends to be in the truncal area with weight restoration in the short-term. When weight is gained in the central part of the body, it can increase the risk for insulin resistance and diabetes.

Common Occurrences

One of the most common effects is Bradycardia which is where the heart beats at 60 per minute, where an average beat per minute is 60-100 [4]. When this starts to happen, it can reduce blood flow and weaken the heart.

This increases the risk of death in those with anorexia. When the heart is not working properly due to this disease, it can disrupt the normal functioning of minerals such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphate. When dehydration occurs from starvation, it can create an electrolyte imbalance.

Woman dancing in the rain

Osteopenia is a loss of bone calcium, and up to 40% of those with anorexia develop osteoporosis which is a more severe loss of bone density [4].

Those with the purging subtype of anorexia tend to have an even higher risk of bone loss due to drops in estrogen levels that occur with anorexia. Elevated levels of the stress hormone, cortisol can also limit bone growth and affect height.

With weight restoration, restored boned development does not always occur. The longer a person struggles with anorexia and irregular or ceased periods, the more likely bone loss is permanent.

Neurological damage can also occur that can affect other issues such as seizures, disordered thinking, tingling or numbness in the hands and feet. Brain structural changes also occur with anorexia and may discontinue as weight restoration occurs, but some damage is also permanent.

What Does All of This Mean?

When someone is struggling with anorexia nervosa, it is imperative that they be under the supervision of a physician who specializes in eating disorders and its physical and biological effects.

We know that body changes start to occur quickly with anorexia, even before a person looks severely thin or underweight. We also know that the longer a person struggles with the illness, the more lasting many of the damaged areas and functions of the brain there will be.

Knowing that being able to seek treatment quickly is important for recovery and reversal of most of the consequences of this disorder.


Image of Libby Lyons and familyAbout the Author: Libby Lyons is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS). Libby has been practicing in the field of eating disorders, addictions, depression, anxiety and other comorbid issues in various agencies. Libby has previously worked as a contractor for the United States Air Force Domestic Violence Program, Saint Louis University Student Health and Counseling, Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute Eating Disorders Program, and has been in Private Practice.

Libby currently works as a counselor at Fontbonne University and is a Adjunct Professor at Saint Louis University, and is a contributing author for Addiction Hope and Eating Disorder Hope. Libby lives in the St. Louis area with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys spending time with her family, running, and watching movies.


References:

[1] Shaw, G. (n.d.). Anorexia: The Body Neglected. Retrieved September 06, 2017, from http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/eating-disorders/anorexia-nervosa/features/anorexia-body-neglected#1
[2] Gendall, K., & Bulik, C. (2005, January). The Long Term Biological Consequences of Anorexia Nervosa. Retrieved September 6, 2017, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228618432_The_Long_Term_Biological_Consequences_of_Anorexia_Nervosa
[3] Dying to Be Thin: The Long Term Health Risks of Anorexia. (n.d.). Retrieved September 12, 2017, from http://centerfordiscovery.com/blog/dying-thin-long-term-health-risks-anorexia/


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer 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 on October 16, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on October 16, 2017.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com