Anorexia can affect nearly every organ and body system. Over time, it can lead to endocrine, digestive, heart, fertility, and kidney issues. In the long term, anorexia can also affect relationships, quality of life, and a person’s mental health.
People with anorexia dramatically restrict their calories in an attempt to lose weight. They may continue to attempt weight loss even after they have underweight and experience weight loss-related health issues. Over time, this can cause serious long-term complications.
Food is the body’s source of energy. Every organ and system needs this energy to function and thrive. When the body does not get sufficient calories for too long, bodily parts can begin to break down.
A 2020 review reports that anorexia has the highest death rate of any psychiatric condition. Prompt treatment for the condition and ongoing support for any complications it causes can reduce the risk of long-term health issues. With time and treatment, it is possible to reverse most long-term consequences of anorexia.
Read on to learn more about the long-term effects of anorexia.
During severe malnourishment, the body
Some other common endocrine issues include:
- low testosterone in all individuals
- low growth hormone, which may stunt or slow growth in children and teenagers
- changes in hormones that regulate appetite and weight
Because hormones are the body’s chemical messengers, endocrine issues can affect many functions. For example, low testosterone may affect energy levels or sex drive. Additionally, hypothyroidism can cause heart health complications, weight gain, and chronic fatigue or depression.
Anorexia deprives a person of the basic nutrients their body needs. This can cause several different nutritional deficits, which affect the body in various ways.
One of the
Anorexia can affect every organ and organ system in the body. Some of the most common organ health issues
- Heart health complications: A person may develop irregular or slow heart rates. They may also develop dangerously low blood pressure that can damage the heart and body, leading to symptoms of weakness and dizziness. Some may develop cardiomyopathy, a disease that causes stiffening and damage to the heart.
- Skin health issues: Malnourishment can cause several skin problems. Some people develop excess body hair, while others develop painfully dry skin or skin discoloration.
- Kidney health problems: A person can develop electrolyte imbalances that damage the kidneys. Over time, this can cause kidney failure.
Anorexia can affect every aspect of digestion. For some people, digestive problems are among the earliest symptoms.
Some common short- and long-term complications include:
- constipation, which may cause painful bowel movements
damage to the digestive systemfrom laxative misuse, including chronic diarrhea, painful bowel movements, rectal prolapse, and hemorrhoids
- gastroparesis, which is when digestion slows or stops
- difficulties absorbing nutrients from food
Learn more about the link between anorexia and constipation.
Anorexia may disrupt a person’s relationships in several ways.
First, loved ones may not understand the disease and may have an ongoing conflict with someone over their disordered eating. The complications of anorexia may also undermine relationships, such as when it involves difficulties with infertility.
People with anorexia and those recovering from this diagnosis have a higher risk of:
Treatment for anorexia is the single most important method of preventing and reducing long-term complications. For example, a 2020 systematic review and meta-analysis found that if people with anorexia undergo appropriate treatment and attain a moderate weight, they are unlikely to have ongoing fertility issues.
Learn more about the different options for anorexia treatment.
A person may need ongoing care from a healthcare specialist, such as a cardiologist, dietitian, endocrinologist, or fertility specialist. They may also need to follow up with a doctor and have ongoing mental health support to prevent relapse.
People with a history of eating disorders who begin experiencing relapse symptoms need to seek prompt care.
Help is available
Eating disorders can severely affect the quality of life of people living with these conditions and those close to them. Early intervention and treatment greatly improve the likelihood of recovery.
Anyone who suspects they or a loved one may have an eating disorder can contact the National Alliance for Eating Disorders, which offers a daytime helpline staffed by licensed therapists and an online search tool for treatment options.
Many other resources are also available, including:
- The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders
- F.E.A.S.T., which provides support and educational resources to friends and family who want to help someone living with an eating disorder
Anorexia nervosa is the mental health diagnosis with the highest death rate. It can cause long-term health issues that may affect fertility, heart health, and a person’s relationships and quality of life.
Treatment can help a person recover and attain health. It usually involves support from a team of healthcare specialists, including cardiologists, dietitians, and endocrinologists. With the right treatment, a person may reduce or eliminate long-term complications and lead a healthy and fulfilling life.