The Effects of Eating Disorders on Your Immune System

The immune system is the group of cells, organs, and chemicals that help the body protect itself against infection [1]. There are several different parts of the body that are part of the immune system, but the key parts are:

  • White blood cells
  • Antibodies
  • Complement system
  • Lymphatic system
  • Spleen
  • Bone marrow
  • Thymus [1]

The immune system is responsible for keeping each of us alive and healthy. What if eating disorders impact this system?

immune system text

How Eating Disorders Affect the Immune System

Eating disorders impact every system in the body, including the immune system. This post will explore the different ways that disordered behaviors typically seen in people with anorexia and bulimia can impact the immune system.

Does Anorexia Weaken Your Immune System?

It makes sense that if someone’s body doesn’t have enough nutrition then their body isn’t going to be able to function as well as it could. This is supported by several studies. Recent research shows that people with anorexia may be more likely to suffer more complications from COVID-19 [2].

woman blowing nose

Bone Marrow Failure from Anorexia

Malnourishment impacts bone marrow. Bone marrow is responsible for creating all blood cells: red, white, and platelets. Different blood cells do different things, such as:

  • Red blood cells carry oxygen through the body
  • White blood cells fight infections
  • Platelets help the blood to clot if there’s an injury [3]

Without the proper nourishment, the body is unable to make bone marrow which directly threatens these blood cells. This is called bone marrow failure. Thankfully, bone marrow failure can be treated through blood transfusions or stem cell transplants [3].

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Bulimia and your Lymph Nodes

Bulimia is an eating disorder characterized by cycles of binge eating and purging to get rid of the calories. There are multiple ways to purge, but one of the commonly known ways is through vomiting.

Over time, frequent vomiting takes a major toll on someone’s body. This can impact the paranoid glands, which contain lymph nodes. The paratoid glands produce salivia—which helps the digestive tract break down food.

When someone vomits, saliva is produced to help protect the digestive tract from stomach acid. Frequent vomiting sends the paranoid glands into overdrive, which causes them to grow. This makes someone’s face look swollen [4].

woman touching her throat

Can Bulimia Cause Tonsillitis?

Yes! Doctors are not sure why this happens, but research has shown that repeated vomiting can cause recurrent tonsillitis [5]. What medical professionals do know is that bulimic behaviors have a profound impact on the digestive system, including the throat and mouth. It makes sense that the tonsils could also be damaged or impacted by repetitive vomiting.

Mind & Body Connection

This article has explored so far how eating disorders can impact the immune system. However, some research is coming out that shows how intertwined the mind and body are. It’s clear that while eating disorders are mental illnesses, they have a big impact on the body.

But what if the body conditions could lead to mental health issues? Recent research shows that inflammation is linked with anorexia. That is, people with inflammation were more likely to develop anorexia [6].

dbt therapy session

How to Get Treatment Help for Eating Disorders

If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, it’s important to get help. Eating disorders are one of the deadliest mental illnesses because of their medical impact.

Not to mention, eating disorders tend to wreak havoc on someone’s life. Work, school, relationships, and hobbies may suffer as someone becomes increasingly preoccupied with disordered behaviors.

Getting help may be lifesaving. There are a few ways to go about getting help. Here are two steps you can take to start the treatment process:

  • Search for local treatment centers: Use the treatment finder to locate treatment in your area. Once you find a local center, you can contact them directly. Many treatment centers will have an admissions department that can answer your questions about their program, run your insurance information, or assess if you’re a good fit for their program.
  • Consider virtual options: If you live somewhere where there isn’t a treatment center within a reasonable distance, consider virtual treatment. There are several companies that offer virtual eating disorder treatment.
  • Contact your insurance: If you have private insurance, you can ask them for a list of in-network providers. This can help you narrow down which treatment centers are an option.

It can be intimidating to start the treatment process. Even though it may be uncomfortable right now, it doesn’t mean it’s the wrong decision.

Consider eating disorder treatment an invitation—an invitation for more peace, joy, and freedom. Who wouldn’t want that?

[1] BetterHealth. (n.d). Immune system explained. Retrieved November 21st, 2021 from

[2] Simeunovic Ostojic, M., Maas, J., M.G Bodde, N. (2021). COVID-19, anorexia nervosa and obese patients with an eating disorder—some considerations among practitioners and researchers. Journal of Eating Disorders, 9(15). 1-7.

[3] Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. (2018, May 23). What is bone marrow failure and how is it treated? Retrieved November 21st, 2021 from

[4] Norman, G. (n.d). The effect of bulimia on the parotid gland. Osborne Head & Neck Institute. Retrieved November 21st, 2021 from

[5] Gibson, D. & S. Mehler, P. (2019). Anorexia nervosa and the immune system—a narrative review. Journal of Clinical Medicine, 8(1915). 1-19.

[6] Bannister, M. (2013). Tonsillitis caused by vomiting in a patient with bulimia nervosa: A case report and literature review. Case Reports in Otolaryngology, 2013. 1-2.

Author: Samantha Bothwell, LMFT
Page Last Reviewed and Approved By:  Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC 12.21.21