According to the National Eating Disorder Association, anorexia nervosa is “a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss.” They go on to write that, “Between 5 to 20 percent of individuals struggling with anorexia nervosa will die. The probabilities of death increases within that range depending on the length of the condition.”
Due to societal pressures, anorexia nervosa has become a widespread serious mental condition. It has several mental consequences and a multitude of physical conditions some with the ability to affect the individual permanently. Because the body is forced to endure induced starvation, anorexia nervosa potentially has the ability to kill its victims. Before this happens though, there are several physical ailments that the individual experiences as this deadly eating disorder takes over.
The Early Stages
The first effects of the disorder are more subtle than the effects that become present as the disorder progresses. Early symptoms include weight loss, blue fingertips, dry skin, amenorrhea (loss of menstrual cycle), and lanugo, the growth of downy hair all over the body to keep the body warm. These are the consequences of the body coping to retain homeostasis while it is adjusting to lower food intakes. Eventually, the body turns to fat stores to compensate for the under intake of calories. Once these fat stores deplete, the body turns to muscle and organ tissues to nourish itself. Here's how it affects the various parts of the body.
The Hormone System
According to the New York Times Health Guide on Anorexia Nervosa, this disorder causes hormonal changes that result in, “long-term, irregular or absent menstruation (amenorrhea) ... over time this causes infertility, bone loss, and other problems.” The hormone system is vital to regulating several essential functions of the body. Without the proper nutrition and fueling necessary for the body to produce and maintain the proper amount of hormones, the hormone system eventually fails and causes these long term effects.
The Skeletal System
Many anorexia patients develop a condition known as osteopenia, which is characterized by a loss of bone calcium. This can lead to stunted growth especially if the patient is undergoing or entering puberty. Eventual bone loss is also a factor if the starvation continues.
The brain and nervous systems are also affected by the long term starvation present in anorexia. The New York Times continues to write that the effects, “indicate that parts of the brain undergo structural changes and abnormal activity during anorexic states. Some of these changes return to normal after weight gain, but some damage may be permanent.” Symptoms of this damage include, “seizures, disordered thinking, and numbness or odd nerve sensations in the hands or feet (peripheral neuropathy).” This is when anorexia nervosa has advanced to the point that the individual has to experience a change of habit or death is almost certain.
Anorexia nervosa is most deadly when it starts to affect the heart. It starts by forming an arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat. This irregular heart beat can eventually stop, leading to sudden death. It also can cause a bradycardia, which is a slow heart rhythm. Blood flow and pressure are also reduced, which can lead to fatigue, dizziness, and even fainting. Due to the lack of nutrition, essential minerals such as potassium and phosphorus, fundamental to electrolyte balances, eventually become depleted. This can also cause life threatening conditions.
Anorexia nervosa is a very serious mental disorder that should be identified and treated in individuals as fast as possible. Like any disorder, the longer the condition lasts, the harder it is to treat and reverse the established habits. Anorexia nervosa has several life threatening, irreversible conditions that have life altering effects. It is a very serious condition, one that should never be treated lightly. There is hope, however. If the disorder is treated fast enough, some of its effects can be reversed. Proper care is essential for this result to occur.
If you or someone you know is seeking help from an eating disorder, please visit our directory of eating disorder and food addiction treatment centers or call 800-772-8219 to speak to a treatment specialist.