Physical consequences of eating disorders

Here’s the hard truth about eating disorders: they’re devastating. They’re also incredibly complex, but that simple fact remains the same. They cause psychological, mental and spiritual problems that just fester and worsen the longer the disordered behaviour remains. The longer the myriad, multi-faceted underlying issues are not dealt with. And the same is true for the physical consequences of eating disorders.

Whether an individual suffers from anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder, orthorexia or any other kind of ED (eating disorder), they usually suffer multiple physical consequences because of their illness. Some are visible to the naked eye, while others cause unseen internal damage. The one thing they all have in common is that once sufferers enter recovery they are able to deal with these realities and any long-term effects, no matter how challenging they are.

But just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s easy, and recovering from the bodily ramifications of an ED most definitely is not. The descriptions below couldn’t illustrate this point any more clearly, as they detail what someone suffering from an active eating disorder might experience.

Musculoskeletal System Effects

Depriving the body of nutrients, whether by bulimic purging or anorexic starvation, depletes mineral stores and reduces production of the hormones oestrogen and testosterone. These deficiencies cause low bone density (osteopenia) and weak bones (osteoporosis), seriously increasing the risk of fractures and breaks.

Without enough macro- and micronutrients muscle mass is also lost, resulting in chronic weakness and fatigue. The musculoskeletal effects are commonest in anorexics and bulimics, but any ED can cause a person to be deficient in the vitamins and minerals they need in order to avoid these issues.

Effects on the skin, hair and teeth

A bulimic, who wished to remain anonymous, reports a dentist asking her whether her jaw hurt from grinding her teeth in her sleep. The corrosion in the back of her mouth was so severe, said the dentist, that she must be constantly working her jaw every night or be “seriously bulimic”.

Such dire dentition is pretty commonplace for bulimics who act out by vomiting after eating. They’re frequently bathed in digestive acid, and are often very damaged with eroded enamel that makes them prone to decay.

Nutritional deficits make all ED sufferers prone to these complications, and can also lead to hair loss. Conversely, at very low weights the body may also produce more hair, in the form of a fine downy growth over the face, arms and other areas. Called lanugo, it’s a desperate physiological attempt to keep warm – a body’s last stand against cold that it wouldn’t feel were it not in the clutches of an eating disorder.

Gastroesophageal effects

With impaired emptying of the gut, once again commonest in anorexia but also seen in bulimia and other EDs, expert Margherita Mascolo explains, sufferers are prone to bloating, reflux and pain. And, of course, the bile that frequently comes up a bulimic’s throat can burn the mouth area quite severely.

Effects on the endocrine system

The endocrine, or hormonal system, is complicated and very finely balanced. That equilibrium can be totally disrupted by any kind of chronic disordered eating, resulting in loss of periods, increased risk of insulin resistance (especially in those with a binge-eating disorder), low libido, abnormal thyroid levels, and delayed growth due to lack of growth hormones.

Cardiovascular effects

You might feel as though your heart is stopping when you learn about other physical repercussions of eating disorders, but if your cardiovascular system is affected the threat could be more literal. Prolonged electrolyte imbalances, due to an anorexic’s starvation or a bulimic’s vomiting, can cause arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) or even heart failure.

According to an article reviewed by physician Dr Timothy Legg, bulimia also puts sufferers at risk of high or low blood pressure, as the blood volumes change with purge cycles. In the same way, those afflicted with binge-eating disorder or anorexia are much likelier to endure high or low blood pressure respectively.

Generalised physical effects and consequences

The first signs that you’ll notice in someone with an active eating disorder are weight changes, general lethargy as they run low on iron and become anaemic, dehydration and dry skin, and an inability to concentrate. From there, they could progress to any of the effects mentioned above and possibly even more organ failure and, ultimately, death.

This is a frightening reality, and anyone looking to recover or support someone getting into recovery needs to face it. Dealing with, and healing from, EDs is possible and the situation is not without hope. But this enemy is cunning and powerful, and anyone doing battle with it has to know what they’re facing.