Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center
International Eating Disorder Referral Organization
Consequences of Eating Disorders
Eating disorders profoundly impact an individual's quality of life. Self-image, relationships, physical well-being and day to day living are often adversely affected. Eating disorders are also often associated with mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and personality disorders. Bulimia nervosa may be particularly associated with substance abuse problems. Anorexia nervosa is often associated with obsessive-compulsive symptoms. The scope of related problems associated with eating disorders highlights the need for prompt treatment and intervention.
The process of starvation associated with Anorexia Nervosa can affect most organ systems. Physical signs and symptoms include but are not limited to constipation, abnormally low heart rate, abdominal distress, dryness of skin, hypotension, fine body hair, lack of menstrual periods. Anorexia Nervosa causes anemia, cardiovascular problems, changes in brain structure, osteoporosis, and kidney dysfunction.
Self-induced vomiting can lead to swelling of salivary glands, electrolyte and mineral disturbances, and enamel erosion in teeth. Laxative abuse can lead to long lasting disruptions of normal bowel functioning. Complications such as tearing the esophagus, rupturing the stomach, and developing life-threatening irregularities of the heart rhythm may also result.
Medical Issues: General
Sometimes those suffering with Anorexia and Bulimia do not appear underweight - some may be of "average" weight, some may be slightly overweight, variations can be anywhere from extremely underweight to extremely overweight. The outward appearance of a person suffering with an eating disorder does not dictate the amount of physical danger they are in, nor does is determine the severity of emotional conflict they are enduring.
Amenorrhea - loss of menstrual cycle.
Barrett's Esophagus - associated with Cancer of the esophagus and caused by Esophageal Reflux, this is a change in the cells within the esophagus.
Blood Sugar Level Disruptions-
Low Blood Sugar- can indicate problems with the liver or kidneys and can lead to neurological and mental deterioration.
Elevated Blood Sugar- can lead to diabetes, liver and kidney shut down, circulatory and immune system problems.
Callused fingers - caused by repeated using the fingers to induce vomiting.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome -crippling fatigue related to a weakened immune system.
Cramps, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, incontinence - increased or decreased bowel activity.
Death- caused by any of the following or any combination of the following: heart attack or heart failure; lung collapse; internal bleeding, stroke, kidney failure, liver failure; pancreatitis, gastric rupture, perforated ulcer, depression and suicide.
Dehydration - caused by lack of intake of fluids in the body.
Dental Problems- decalcification of teeth, erosion of tooth enamel, and severe decay.
Gum Disease -caused by stomach acids and enzymes from vomiting; lack of vitamin D and calcium, and hormonal imbalance.
Depression - mood swings and depression caused by physiological factors such as electrolyte imbalances, hormone and vitamin deficiencies, malnutrition and dehydration. Living with the Eating Disorder behaviors can cause depression. Depression can also lead the victim back into the cycle of the Eating Disorder (or may have initially been the problem before the onset of the ED). Stress within family, job and relationships can all be causes. There are also a percentage of people born with a pre-disposition to depression, based on family history.
Diabetes - high blood sugar as a result of low production of insulin. This can be caused by hormonal imbalances, hyperglycemia or chronic pancreatitis.
Digestive Difficulties - a deficiency in digestive enzymes will lead to the body's inability to properly digest food and absorb nutrients. This can lead to mal-absorption problems, malnutrition and electrolyte imbalances.
Dry Skin and Hair, Brittle Hair and Nails, Hair Loss - caused by Vitamin and Mineral deficiencies, malnutrition and dehydration
Edema - swelling of the soft tissues as a result of excess water accumulation. Most common in the legs and feet of Compulsive Overeaters and in the abdominal area of Anorexics and/or Bulimics (can be caused by Laxative and Diuretic use).
Electrolyte Imbalances - electrolytes are essential to the production of the body's "natural electricity" that ensures healthy teeth, joints and bones, nerve and muscle impulses, kidneys and heart, blood sugar levels and the delivery of oxygen to the cells. Bad Circulation, Slowed or Irregular Heartbeat, Arrhythmias, Angina, Heart Attack - There are many factors associated with having an Eating Disorder that can lead to heart problems or a heart attack. Sudden cardiac arrest can cause permanent damage to the heart, or instant death. Electrolyte imbalances (especially potassium deficiency), dehydration, malnutrition, low blood pressure, extreme orthostatic hypotension, abnormally slow heart rate, electrolyte imbalances, and hormonal imbalances call all cause serious problems with the heart.
Esophageal Reflux - Acid Reflux Disorders - partially digested items in the stomach, mixed with acid and enzymes, regurgitates back into the esophagus. This can lead to damage to the esophagus, larynx and lungs and increases the chances of developing cancer of the esophagus and voice box.
Gastric Rupture - spontaneous stomach erosion, perforation or rupture.
High Blood Pressure, Hypertension - elevated blood pressure exceeding 140 over 90. Can cause: blood vessel changes in the back of the eye creating vision impairment; abnormal thickening of the heart muscle; kidney failure; and brain damage.
Hyperactivity - manic behavior; not being able to sit still.
Impaired Neuromuscular Function - due to vitamin and mineral deficiencies and malnutrition.
Infertility - the inability to have children; caused by loss of menstrual cycle, and hormonal imbalances. Malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies can also make it impossible to succeed with a full-term pregnancy, and can increase the chances significantly of a baby born with birth defects.
Insomnia - having problems falling and/or staying asleep.
Iron Deficiency, Anemia - this makes the oxygen transporting units within the blood useless and can lead to fatigue, shortness of breath, increased infections, and heart palpitations.
Kidney Infection and Failure - kidneys cleanse the poisons from your body, regulate acid concentration and maintain water balance. Vitamin Deficiencies, dehydration, infection and low blood pressure increase the risks of and associated with kidney infection thus making permanent kidney damage and kidney failure more likely.
Lanugo - (soft downy hair on face, back and arms). This is caused due to a protective mechanism built-in to the body to help keep a person warm during periods of starvation and malnutrition, and the hormonal imbalances that result.
Liver Failure - the liver aids in removing waste from cells, and aids in digestion. Fasting and taking acetaminophen (drug found in over-the-counter painkillers) increases your risks for Liver damage and failure. Loss of menstruation and dehydration (putting women at risk for too much iron in their system), and chronic heart failure can lead to liver damage or failure.
Low Blood Pressure, Hypotension - caused by lowered body temperature, malnutrition and dehydration. Can cause heart arrhythmias, shock or myocardial infarction.
Lowered body temperature - caused by loss of healthy insulating layer of fat and lowered blood pressure.
Malnutrition - caused by undereating or overeating. Malnutrition indicates deficiency for energy, protein and micronutrients (e.g. vitamin A, iodine and iron) either singularly or in combination. It can cause severe health risks including (but not limited to) respiratory infections, kidney failure, blindness, heart attack and death.
Mallory-Weiss tear - associated with vomiting, a tear of the gastroesophageal junction.
Muscle Atrophy - wasting away of muscle and decrease in muscle mass due to the body feeding off of itself.
Orthostatic Hypotension - sudden drop in blood pressure upon sitting up or standing. Symptoms include dizziness, blurred vision, passing out, heart pounding and headaches.
Osteoporosis - thinning of the bones with reduction in bone mass due to depletion of calcium and bone protein, predisposing to fractures.
Osteopenia - below normal bone mass indicating a calcium and/or vitamin D deficiency and leading to Osteoporosis. Hormone imbalance/deficiencies associated with the loss of the menstrual cycle can also increase your risks of Osteoporosis and Osteopenia.
Pancreatitis - when the digestive enzymes attack the pancreas; caused by repeated stomach trauma, alcohol consumption or the excessive use of laxatives or diet pills.
Peptic Ulcers - caused by increased stomach acids, cigarette smoking, high consumption of caffeine or alcohol.
Pregnancy problems - including potential for high-risk pregnancies, miscarriage, still born babies and death or chronic illnesses from minor to severe, in children born (all due to malnutrition, dehydration, vitamin and hormone deficiencies).
Swelling - in face and cheeks (following self-induced vomiting)
Seizures - increased risk of seizures in Anorexic and Bulimic individuals may be caused by dehydration. It is also possible that lesions on the brain caused by long-term malnutrition and lack of oxygen-carrying cells to the brain may play a role.
Tearing of Esophagus - caused by self-induced vomiting
TMJ "Syndrome" - degenerative arthritis within the tempero-mandibular joint in the jaw (where the lower jaw hinges to the skull) creating pain in the joint area, headaches, and problems chewing and opening/closing the mouth. Vitamin deficiencies and teeth grinding (often related to stress) can both be causes.
Weakness and Fatigue - caused generalized poor eating habits, electrolyte imbalances, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, depression, malnutrition, heart problems.
American Psychiatric Association (1998), Eating Disorders.
Dept. of Health and Human Services (1987, 1995). Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia.
Also adapted from EDAP, Eating Disorder Awareness and Prevention, 1998, www,edap.org
*We cannot diagnose or treat eating disorders by email, but we can send you information and assist you in finding resources. Information provided by the Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center is not a substitute for medical treatment or psychological care. It is vital that you talk with your physician and a qualified mental health professional regarding eating disorder symptoms and treatment.