Anorexia is a potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight. This obsessive fear of weight gain coupled with a distorted body image leads individuals with anorexia to restrict their caloric intake to the point of self-starvation and malnutrition. These behaviors can have severe long-term and short-term consequences on an individual’s physical and mental health .
Short Term Consequences of Anorexia
The short term consequences of anorexia include the following:
- Weakness, lack of energy, and fatigue
- Abdominal pain
- Stomach ulcers
- Slow heart rate
- Irregular heartbeat
- Lanugo (a layer of fine hair growing on the body)
- Dry, yellow-colored skin
- Poor circulation
- Always feeling cold
- Disrupted menstrual cycle or loss of menstrual cycle
- Shortness of breath
- Skin disorders
If detected and treated soon enough, the short-term effects of anorexia will often clear up once the individual receives medical care and gains weight. However, if the disorder is left untreated and the body continues to be deprived of essential calories and nutrients for several years, these short-term consequences may cause permanent damage and develop into serious, long-term health problems.
Long Term Consequences of Anorexia
Over time, caloric restriction, extreme weight loss, and malnutrition begin to take a more permanent toll on the body. Though medical interventions and weight gain can often repair part of the damage, some of the following long-term consequences of anorexia may be irreversible.
When a woman’s body fat drops drastically, her hormone cycle is disrupted, which can lead to a loss of menstruation and other reproductive issues . The good news is, the majority of women with anorexia regain their menstrual cycle and their ability to conceive once they gain weight.
However, if anorexia is left untreated for too long, the damage to the reproductive system may be permanent, and she may never get her cycle back. Further, even if a woman regains her menstrual cycle after anorexia, she is at a much higher risk of experiencing infertility issues and pregnancy complications .
Reproductive problems associated with anorexia include:
- Amenorrhea (absence of menstruation)
- Fertility problems
- Hyperemesis gravidarum (severe, persistent nausea and vomiting during pregnancy)
- Obstetric complications
- Compromised fetal growth
- Low birth weight
One study found that 80 percent of anorexia nervosa patients experience cardiac complications . How does anorexia affect the functioning of the heart? When the body is deprived of the calories and nutrients it needs to survive, it begins to eat away at its own muscle content. If deprived of calories long enough, the heart (the body’s most important muscle) will eventually lose muscle mass and weaken, leading to a host of cardiovascular problems and, in some cases, even death.
Cardiovascular complications associated with anorexia include:
- Poor circulation
- Weakened heart
- Hypotension (low blood pressure)
- Bradycardia (slow heartbeat)
- Arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat)
- Damage to the heart’s structure and function
- Mitral valve prolapse
- Cardiac arrest
Perhaps a lesser-known effect of anorexia nervosa is neurological damage. Brain scans have shown that severe anorexia can lead to structural changes in the brain and cause nerve damage that affects the brain and other parts of the body. Once a person’s weight is restored, these changes should return to normal, but in some cases, the damage may be permanent.
Neurological damage associated with anorexia:
- Development of seizures
- Structural changes to the brain
- Confused thinking
- Extreme irritability
- Peripheral neuropathy (numbness, pain, or weakness, usually in the hands or feet)
The body’s skeletal system (aka bones) needs vitamins and nutrients to grow and stay strong. When it’s deprived of food and fails to get these essential nutrients (like calcium), the bones begin to weaken and lose density . This can cause numerous problems that may persist long into the future.
Skeletal problems associated with anorexia:
- Reduced bone mass density (BMD)
- Brittle bones
- Increased risk of fractures both now and later in life
Treating the Long Term & Short Term Consequences of Anorexia
If detected and treated soon enough, many of the short-term effects of anorexia can be treated and reversed. However, if the condition is left untreated for a lengthy period of time, anorexia can lead to a myriad of long-term health problems that may be irreversible.
If you think you or a loved one may have anorexia, seek help right away. Start by talking to your doctor about your symptoms and concerns, or call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237 to find out more about eating disorder treatment programs in your area.
References: Meczekalski, B., Podfigurna-Stopa, A., & Katulski, K. (2013). Long-term consequences of anorexia nervosa. Maturitas, 75(3), 215–220. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.maturitas.2013.04.014  Kimmel, M. C., Ferguson, E. H., Zerwas, S., Bulik, C. M., & Meltzer-Brody, S. (2016). Obstetric and gynecologic problems associated with eating disorders. The International journal of eating disorders, 49(3), 260–275. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.22483  Meczekalski, B., Podfigurna-Stopa, A., & Katulski, K. (2013). Long-term consequences of anorexia nervosa. Maturitas, 75(3), 215–220. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.maturitas.2013.04.014  ibid.  ibid.
About the Author:
Sarah Musick is a freelance writer who specializes in eating disorder awareness and education. After battling with a 4-years long eating disorder, she made it her mission to help others find hope and healing in recovery.
Her work has been featured on numerous eating disorder blogs and websites. When she’s not writing, Sarah is off traveling the world with her husband.
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 February 24, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on February 24, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC