Some consequences which may result from having an eating disorder

Short term effects:
At first the eating disorder seems to offer a solution to some of life's problems, enabling the person to feel good. At this stage they are likely to:
   Lose weight.
   Get positive feedback about how good they look.
   Have endorphin (natural morphine-like hormones) driven "highs".
   Feel more confident and in control.

Long term effects:

As the body adjusts to starvation, weight is lost more slowly and it becomes more difficult to maintain a low weight. The body begins to conserve energy as weight falls:

  • Heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and body temperature are all reduced.
  • Blood is diverted mainly to the brain and vital organs, rather than the limbs resulting in cold hands and feet, chilblains and generally feeling cold.
  • Restricted drinking will cause dehydration and affect kidney function.
  • As weight falls downy hair (lanugo) grows on parts of the body which would normally be hairless (a method of conserving heat).
  • Menstrual periods cease and sex drive reduces at low weights. Fertility may be affected. (Note: Periods become irregular at high weights too.)
  • Muscle fibre is broken down and used as fuel by the body. At low weights heart muscle is affected, the beat can become irregular.  Ultimately there is a risk of heart attack.
  • Sleep is disturbed and hyperactivity ensues (an attempt by the body to find food).
  • Stomach emptying is delayed as the body seeks to obtain maximum nourishment from food, causing bowel irritation and constipation.
  • Loss of bone calcium can ultimately lead to brittle bones (osteoporosis).
  • People are likely to start to express concerns instead of positive feedback as weight drops further and behaviour and attitudes change.

If a person has bulimia nervosa, they are likely to lose weight at first and then start to regain weight, even though they are using compensatory behaviours to get rid of the calories they take in. This is due to the body adapting to the biochemistry of chaotic eating.

  • Vomiting and laxatives remove sodium and potassium from the body resulting in an electrolyte imbalance. This can result in irregular heartbeat which could lead to heart failure.
  • Laxatives work by artificially stimulating the bowel. Food is absorbed and digested in the stomach, so mainly roughage and water are lost by the time it reaches the bowel. With over use of laxatives, the bowel develops a tolerance for them. The individual then needs to use progressively larger doses or quantities to accomplish bowel movement. The long-term medical consequence of having a laxative-dependent bowel can be having to have a colostomy.
  • Vomiting results in tooth enamel being dissolved away. To minimise the loss of enamel, do not brush teeth after vomiting, just rinse the mouth with milk or water.
  • Vomiting causes ulcers on the throat and sores around the mouth.
  • Pressure on the diaphragm from vomiting can result in blood vessels rupturing. Insufficient fluid intake, or loss of fluid through vomiting or laxative abuse causes dehydration and possible development of kidney stones or failure.
  • These are all physiological symptoms and most are reversible when healthy nutrition adequate for the person's body and lifestyle is restored. More dangerous though is the psychological deterioration of the person, which results from the stressful life involved in maintaining the eating disorder together with disgust and disappointment when the person tries to get out of the eating disorder cycle and finds that they cannot.

The majority of deaths from eating disorders are from suicide and many of those deaths occur when weight has increased, or the person thinks they have overeaten. The person with an eating disorder often thinks that they cause so much suffering and distress around them that the world would be a better place without them. They become exhausted trying to keep up a cheerful front while feeling bad inside.

Recovery is possible.

Approximately one third of people with eating disorders will make some sort of spontaneous recovery.  Another third will move in and out of the eating disorder as pressures and changes affect their lives. Sadly some will die.

Perhaps with more knowledge and understanding, you can help to change these statistics. Remember that they can't do it alone, but they alone can do it.