Some evidence suggests that seizures may be a complication that sometimes relates to anorexia.

Anorexia is a type of eating disorder that restricts the amount of food and drink a person consumes to lose weight. The lifetime prevalence in United States adults is 0.6%, with a majority of cases occurring in biological females.

Anorexia has links to several complications, including early death. A less well-known and understood complication sometimes relating to anorexia may be seizures.

This article explores recent studies into anorexia and seizures, other side effects of anorexia, treatment options, and more.

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In a study from 2023, researchers looked into the possible role of malnourishment in the development of seizures. They found an increased prevalence of seizures in people with various eating disorders, such as anorexia. They consider it a possible direct consequence of malnourishment, substance misuse, and alcohol-induced brain damage. Some participants in the study also had epilepsy unrelating to an eating disorder.

Researchers have long suspected a relationship between seizures and malnourishment. A 2009 study noted two theories relating to malnourishment and seizures: malnourishment predisposes a person to epilepsy, and epilepsy predisposes a person to malnourishment.

The researchers noted that a better understanding between the two is necessary.

The Epilepsy Foundation notes that food and nutrients may play a role in seizures. In particular, it highlights the potential role of low blood sugar levels.

The organization states that low blood sugar may trigger a seizure in some people, particularly those living with diabetes who take excessive amounts of insulin. However, it also notes that no proof exists to show that mild dips in blood sugar can trigger a seizure.

A 2022 study found that people with anorexia may have chronic, prolonged mild hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. This type of hypoglycemia may not be a trigger for seizures. However, this study does show that low blood sugar may be a complication of anorexia.

Other deficiencies may also contribute to seizures, such as vitamin and mineral deficiencies, while malnutrition can lead to changes in vitamin and mineral levels. Sometimes, this can trigger a seizure.

Additional research is necessary to understand further how exactly anorexia or other eating disorders may interact with seizures and seizure disorders. However, it is clear that a restricted food intake can lead to low levels of minerals, glucose, and vitamins. In anorexia, the body can adjust the mineral concentration by breaking down fat and muscles. This mineral concentration, even when the body adjusts it, can lead to heart rhythm irregularities and fainting. If a person with anorexia experiences a sudden disruption to their body, such as infection, diarrhea, or vomiting, this concentration can rapidly change and trigger a seizure.

Read more about anorexia.

Anorexia is a serious condition and one of the more fatal forms of mental health conditions. People have a high risk of dying of complications relating to starvation. The second most common cause of death in people living with anorexia is suicide.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects if it’s safe to do so.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

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Over time, anorexia can cause several side effects to occur in a person’s body. Some common issues that may develop include:

  • low blood pressure
  • thinning of the bones, which doctors call osteopenia or osteoporosis
  • muscle wasting and weakness
  • anemia
  • yellowing or discolored, dry skin
  • brittle nails or hair
  • severe constipation
  • fine hair growth all over the body, which doctors call lanugo
  • brain damage
  • heart failure
  • slowed breathing
  • slowed pulse
  • infertility
  • failure of multiple organs
  • lethargy or feeling tired all the time
  • reduced internal body temperature

People living with anorexia may also exhibit signs such as:

  • frequently checking their weight
  • significant thinning
  • severely restricting their food intake
  • expressing concerns about gaining weight
  • having a distorted body image or signs of low self-esteem
  • constantly trying to lose weight, even if at a moderate weight

Read about the signs of an eating disorder.

Treatments can vary according to a person’s age.

For teens or adolescents, researchers consider family-based therapy a first-line treatment. This approach involves using the family structure to help make changes in a person’s behavior.

For adults, several therapeutic approaches may help. They can include:

  • cognitive behavioral therapy
  • exposure and response prevention
  • third-wave acceptance-based treatments, which are a holistic approach promoting psychological and behavioral processes relating to health and well-being over negative behavior
  • supportive psychotherapy

The goal of therapies is to promote modest weight gain. Researchers do not believe any one therapy is superior to another, and each has the potential to leave different people vulnerable to relapse.

Researchers continue to investigate newer treatments for adults that may include antidepressants, olanzapine — a second-generation antipsychotic, and other types of neuromodulation strategies, such as:

Support and treatment options for anorexia and other eating disorders are available to most people locally as well as online.

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) offers several options of support groups to choose from that meet locally in some areas or offer virtual meetings. Options are available on the organization’s website.

NEDA also offers help finding treatments in various locations throughout the United States. A person can review available treatment facilities on the online map NEDA provides.

Teens enrolled in school can ask for resources from their school nurse or other trusted adults.

People can also discuss treatment options with a healthcare professional. They may be unable to provide direct care but can likely provide referrals to local treatment centers.

The following sections provide some answers to frequently asked questions about seizures and anorexia.

What are the neurological effects of anorexia?

Anorexia can cause damage to the brain and changes in how someone thinks or acts. It can also lead to multiple organ failure, reduced breathing and heart rate, and other physical symptoms.

What is the most common medical complication of anorexia nervosa?

The two most common medical complications of anorexia nervosa are bradycardia, which refers to a pulse under 60 beats per minute, and hypotension, which refers to low blood pressure. Bradycardia occurs in an estimated 95% of people living with anorexia.

Evidence suggests that malnourishment due to anorexia may sometimes trigger seizures. Severe changes to blood sugar or minerals can trigger seizures. Sometimes, anorexia can cause these changes, potentially triggering a seizure.

Anorexia can cause several issues throughout the body, and complications can range from mild to potentially fatal. Treatments typically focus on changing perceptions and behaviors and can vary between adults and teens.

If an individual is experiencing symptoms of anorexia, they need to contact a healthcare professional or a support organization.