Medical Complications of Eating Disorders
Many women struggle with some sort of disordered eating. Statistics
- 1 in 200 American women suffers from anorexia
- 2 - 3 in 100 American women suffers from bulimia
- Nearly half of all Americans personally know someone with an eating
- Only 1 in 10 people with eating disorders receive treatment
Source: Body Wars: Making Peace with Women’s Bodies, by Margo Maine,
Ph.D., Gürze Books, 2000
For the most part, women who struggle with disordered eating and body
image will not develop an eating disorder. However, it is estimated
between 1 - 5% of the population suffer. Estimates suggest that more
than eight million people will develop an eating disorder; seven million
women and one million men. It has also been found that certain temperaments
are prevalent in someone who is more susceptible to an eating disorder.
Some of these temperaments may include depression, obsessive-compulsive
behaviors, anxiety issues, perfectionism, as well as sleep disturbances.
Below is a list of medical complications associated with eating disorders:
- Amenorrhea - Loss of menstrual cycle (due to lack
of secreting hormone, Estrogen, by the ovaries). Loss of the menstrual
cycle can also lead to Osteopenia and Osteoporosis.
- Anemia - this makes the oxygen transporting units
within the blood useless and can lead to fatigue, shortness of breath,
increased infections, and heart palpitations.
- 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 can
all cause serious problems with the heart. High blood pressure,
accumulation of fat deposits around the heart muscle, high cholesterol,
decreased exercise due to lack of mobility, diabetes and hormonal
imbalances can all lead to serious problems with the heart as well.
- Arthritis (degenerative) - can be caused by hormonal
imbalances and vitamin deficiencies as well as increased stress on
the joints in individuals who are suffering Compulsive Overeating.
- Barrett's Esophagus - associated with Cancer of
the esophagus and caused by Esophageal Reflux, this is a change in
the cells within the esophagus.
- Callused or bruised fingers - this is caused by
repeatedly using the fingers to induce vomiting.
- Cancer - of the throat and voice box (Larynx)
due to acid reflux disorders.
- Chronic Fatigue - continuous and crippling fatigue
related to a weakened immune system.
- Cramps, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, incontinence -
increased or decreased bowel activity.
- Dehydration - caused by the depletion or lack
of intake of fluids in the body. Restriction/Starvation, vomiting
and laxative abuse are the primary causes in victims of Eating Disorders.
Symptoms include dizziness, weakness, or darkening of urine. It can
lead to kidney failure, heart failure and death.
- Dental Problems, Decalcification of teeth, erosion of tooth
enamel, severe decay, Gum Disease - will be caused by
stomach acids and enzymes (from vomiting); vitamin D and calcium
deficiencies, and hormonal imbalance. Can also be due to the lack
of exercise the teeth can get from the process of eating certain
foods. Dental problems can sometime indicate problems with the
- Depression - mood swings and depressions can all
be caused by physiological factors such as electrolyte imbalances,
hormone and vitamin deficiencies, malnutrition and dehydration. Living
with the Eating Disorder behaviors themselves will 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. Can lead to Suicide.
- 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 malabsorption problems, malnutrition
and electrolyte imbalances.
- Disruptions in Blood Sugar Levels - Low Blood
Sugar/Hypoglycemia: can indicate problems with the liver or kidneys
and can lead to neurological and mental deterioration. Elevated Blood
Sugar/Hyperglycemia - can lead to diabetes, liver and kidney shut
down, circulatory and immune system problems.
- Dry Skin and Hair, Brittle Hair and Nails, Hair Loss -
caused by vitamin and mineral deficiencies, malnutrition and dehydration.
- Easily Bruising Skin - Vitamin Deficiencies that
decrease the body's ability to heal itself, low blood pressure and
extreme weight loss can all lead to easily bruised skin that can
take a long time to heal.
- Edema - swelling of the soft tissues as a result
of excess water accumulation. It is 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.
- 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 (more common in those
with Compulsive Overeating and/or Binge Eating Disorder) -
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
- Hyperactivity - manic bouts of not being able
to sit still.
- Impaired Neuromuscular Function - due to vitamin
and mineral deficiencies (specifically potassium), 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
- Ketoacidosis - high levels of acids that build
up in the blood (known as ketones) caused by the body burning fat
(instead of sugar and carbohydrates) to get energy. It can be a result
of starvation, excessive purging, dehydration, hyperglycemia and/or
alcohol abuse (it can also be a result of uncontrolled or untreated
diabetes). It can lead to coma and death.
- Kidney Infection and Failure - your kidneys "clean" the
poisons from your body, regulate acid concentration and maintain
water balance. Vitamin deficiencies, dehydration, infection and low
blood pressure increase the risks and are associated with kidney
infection thus making permanent kidney damage and kidney failure
- 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. You cannot live without your Liver.
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 (more common in those with
Anorexia and/or Bulimia) - caused by lowered body temperature,
malnutrition and dehydration. Can cause heart arrythmias, shock
or myocardial infarction.
- Orthostatic Hypotension - sudden drop in blood
pressure upon sitting up or standing. Symptoms include dizziness,
blurred vision, passing out, heart pounding and headaches.
- Low Platelet Count or Thrombocytopenia - Caused
by low levels of vitamin B12 and Folic Acid, and/or by excessive
alcohol. It may also be an indication of a suppressed immune system
or immune dysfunction.
- Lowered body temperature - Temperature Sensitivity
- caused by loss of healthy insulating layer of fat and lowered blood
- Mallory-Weiss tear - associated with vomiting,
a tear of the gastroesophageal junction.
- Malnutrition - caused by undereating or overeating.
The word 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.
- Muscle Atrophy - wasting away of muscle and decrease
in muscle mass due to the body feeding off of itself.
- 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.
- Osteoporosis - Thinning of the bones with reduction
in bone mass due to depletion of calcium and bone protein, predisposing
- Pancreatitis - this is when the digestive enzymes
attack the pancreas. It can be caused by repeated stomach trauma
(such as with vomiting), 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.
- Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome - a study a few years
ago suggested that people with Eating Disorders were at an increased
risk for developing Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCO), and that recovery
from the Eating Disorder should be part of treatment for PCO
- Problems during pregnancy - including potential
for high-risk pregnancies, miscarriage, still born babies and death
or chronic illness from minor to severe, in children born (all due
to malnutrition, dehydration, vitamin and hormone deficiencies).
- Reflux - can sometimes become severe enough that
food cannot be kept down at all and medical attention should be sought
- Seizures - the 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.
- Swelling - in face and cheeks (following self-induced
- Tearing of Esophagus - caused by self-induced
- TMJ "Syndrome" and Related TMJ Problems -
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 by generalized poor
eating habits, electrolyte imbalances, vitamin and mineral deficiencies,
depression, malnutrition, and heart problems.
- 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.
(*Thank you to www.something-fishy.org for this expansive list.)