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The physical effects of eating disorders are a common topic of discussion. However, many of those discussions revolve around what can happen to a person internally when they are struggling with an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia. But there are also many questions about what can happen to a person’s physical appearance.
Does Bulimia Cause Weight Loss?
When someone has bulimia nervosa, they experience compulsions that lead them to eat an excessive amount of food in one sitting (bingeing), and they then follow that behavior by forcing themselves to purge the food they ate. During the bingeing period, these people are often unable to control the amount of food they eat, and that lack of self-control can lead to feelings of shame, anxiety, and a need to reverse the behavior by purging.
As is true for people who have other types of eating disorders, people who have bulimia tend to be focused on body image and weight. When they binge on food, there can be a fear that it will cause weight gain. This can then also lead to experiencing a need to purge.
While the purging behavior associated with bulimia may, in some instances, lead to weight loss, it is not always the case. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), people who have bulimia are typically within a normal weight to overweight range . However, the DSM-5 goes on to note that in between periods of bingeing and purging, it is not uncommon for people who have bulimia to try to avoid foods that are high in calories. This might result in them losing weight; however, it is likely only temporary.
Does Bulimia Cause Hair Loss?
Yes, bulimia has the potential to cause hair loss. According to The Trichological Society, following ongoing episodes of bingeing and purging, people who have bulimia may begin shedding hair from their scalp .
There can be multiple reasons why people may lose their hair if they are struggling with symptoms of bulimia nervosa. Nutrition is an essential factor in hair growth, and if a person does not have proper nutrition, they are at risk for losing hair and not being able to fully grow new hair. Because the behaviors associated with bulimia can cause malnutrition, there is a possibility that hair loss will be a result.
Additionally, there are some people who lose hair as a result of stress. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) notes that there is a link between chronic stress and hair loss. NIH explains that hair growth is driven by certain cells in hair follicles, and stress hormones cause those cells to stop regulating properly, which can ultimately prevent hair regrowth .
It is common for individuals who have bulimia to experience an extreme amount of physical and emotional stress, which can therefore increase their risk for losing hair.
What Can Bulimia Do to Your Teeth?
The purging behaviors someone who has bulimia engages in have the potential to cause significant damage to their teeth. In general, frequent vomiting can damage tooth enamel. Enamel is essential for keeping teeth healthy and strong, so as that enamel begins to wear, teeth become vulnerable to breakage and erosion. Additionally, the lack of enamel can also make teeth extremely sensitive.
Vomiting leaves stomach acids in the mouth, which not only causes enamel erosion, but it can also cause issues with a person’s gums. For example, people who have bulimia and engage in repetitive episodes of purging may experience receding gums and gum sensitivity . The damage may also be visible to others, evidenced by broken teeth or tooth discoloration.
Does Anorexia Cause Acne?
Yes, one of the potential physical side effects of anorexia nervosa is acne. While not everyone who has anorexia will struggle with acne, it is one of the common effects the behaviors associated with the disease can have on a person’s skin. According to an article published in Dermato-Endocrinology, various skin conditions can result as medical consequences from the behaviors associated with anorexia . These behaviors can include vomiting, starvation, and abusing drugs like laxatives.
In general, the foods a person eats can have an impact on their physical appearance, not just in terms of weight. When someone’s body is deprived of appropriate nutrition and they are not getting the calories they need, it can change many aspects of their appearance, including their skin.
Can Anorexia Stunt Puberty?
Yes, anorexia can lead to stunted puberty. The eating behaviors and subsequent malnutrition associated with anorexia nervosa can disrupt the hormones that are responsible for the changes the body goes through during puberty. The effects of anorexia can also negatively impact bone health and overall growth and development. This can be true for both males and females.
Findings from a study conducted by the Endocrinology Network demonstrated that adolescent girls who have anorexia are at risk for stunted growth and may ultimately not reach their full height potential .
Effects of Bulimia & Anorexia
The effects of anorexia and bulimia are far-reaching. Not only is a person’s internal health put at severe risk due to the behaviors associated with both disorders, but their physical appearance can also be highly impacted. It is imperative that anyone who is suffering from anorexia, bulimia, or another type of eating disorder seeks treatment as quickly as possible to prevent irreversible damage.
References: American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Feeding and eating disorders. In Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).  The Trichological Society. (n.d.). Bulimia nervosa and hair loss. https://www.hairscientists.org/hair-and-scalp-conditions/bullimia-and-hair-loss.  National Institutes of Health. (2021, April). How stress causes hair loss. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/how-stress-causes-hair-loss.  Valdez, R., M.S., RDN. (2021, October). Verywell Health. How does bulimia affect the teeth? https://www.verywellhealth.com/bulimia-teeth-5203972.  Strumia, R. (2009, September). Skin signs in anorexia nervosa. Dermato-Endocrinology 1(5),268-270. http://doi.org/10.4161/derm.1.5.10193.  Campbell, P. (2020, August). Endocrinology Network. Anorexia during adolescence linked to stunted growth in females. https://www.endocrinologynetwork.com/view/anorexia-during-adolescence-linked-to-stunted-growth-in-females.
About Timberline Knolls
Timberline Knolls is a residential treatment center located on 43 beautiful acres just outside Chicago, offering a nurturing recovery environment for women and girls age 12 and older who are struggling with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health conditions. An adult partial hospitalization program (PHP) is available for step-down and for women to directly admit. By serving with uncompromising care, relentless compassion, and an unconditional joyful spirit, we help our residents and clients help themselves in their recovery. For more information, please visit www.timberlineknolls.com.
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 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 on November 14, 2022. Published on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on November 14, 2022