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.

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During severe malnourishment, the body may not produce hormones in the right quantities. One of the most common complications of anorexia is that a person’s monthly period stops. This can affect their ability to get pregnant.

Some other common endocrine issues include:

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 most common complications — especially when the monthly period stops — is that a person may develop osteoporosis from calcium and vitamin D deficiency. This increases the risk of broken bones and can have knock-on effects, such as an increased risk for other complications, including mobility issues.

Anorexia can affect every organ and organ system in the body. Some of the most common organ health issues include:

  • 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:

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.

Anorexia can also cause minor complications that are not usually dangerous, such as constipation. These complications can greatly undermine quality of life and may affect a person’s ability to participate in daily activities. Disordered eating itself may also affect daily activities by making eating at restaurants and family meals a source of stress.

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.

Treatment addresses the emotions and negative thoughts that lead to disordered eating. A person might also need nutritional support to begin recovering, and eating disorder treatment almost always includes therapy. Still, some people may need inpatient care in the hospital.

Learn more about the different options for anorexia treatment.

Ongoing support

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.

For general mental health support at any time, people can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 24 hours a day at 1-800-662-4357 (or 1-800-487-4889 for TTY).

Many other resources are also available, including:

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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.