In just the United States, it’s estimated that 20 million women have or have suffered from an eating disorder at some point in their lives. People with eating disorders can have a variety of symptoms, but most include the severe restriction of food, food binges, or taking inappropriate measures to purge the body through vomiting or over-exercising.
Experts believe that eating disorders may be caused by a variety of factors, including genetics, brain structure (especially levels of serotonin and dopamine), personality (neuroticism, perfectionism, impulsivity), and cultural preferences and pressures to be thin.
It’s important to note that eating disorders are serious mental conditions. In fact, eating disorders are now officially recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Eating disorders are more severe than mere “bad habits”: the conditions affect people not only psychologically and socially, but also physically. Medical complications of eating disorders, apart from extreme weight loss or gain, can include the following problems.
Impaired cognitive functioning
Recent studies have linked eating disorders to impaired cognitive functioning, and there are a few different theories to explain why. The connection may come from constant malnourishment and obsessive thoughts about food. However, it’s believed that diminished cognitive function is permanent and will not increase to normal levels, even if someone gets mentally and physically healthy again.
Hormonal imbalances are caused by a combination of factors such as diet, medical history, genetics, stress levels and exposure to toxins from the environment. Therefore, many aspects of disordered eating, from stress to obesity, to high levels of inflammation caused by a poor diet, can throw hormones out of order.
Most women who are anorexic and about 50 percent of women with bulimia stop having their periods. Amenorrhea, or the absence of the menstrual cycle in a woman of childbearing age, occurs when the normal secretion of hormones from the hypothalamus is interrupted. This can occur when a woman engages in excessive exercise and/or restricts their food intake, resulting in a lower-than-normal body mass.
Various forms of disordered eating have distinct consequences for the stomach and the intestines. Anorexia might result in stomach aches, bloating, constipation and acid reflux. Meanwhile, bulimia can lead to constipation, loss of bowel function, GI bleeding, acid reflux, gastric rupture, esophageal tears, pancreatitis and rectal prolapse.
Each of the three most common eating disorders come with a slew of cardiovascular complications. Anorexia can result in dangerously low blood pressure, weakened heart muscle, heart palpitations, chest pain, heart failure, and slowed or elevated heart rate. Bulimia can cause cardiac arrhythmias, meanwhile, binge eating disorder can provoke high blood pressure, heart disease and high cholesterol in the blood.
Anorexia can give rise to a swelling condition called edema—caused by excess fluid trapped in the body’s tissues. Although edema can affect any part of your body, it’s most common in the hands, arms, feet, ankles, and legs. Edema comes with its own set of complications, including shortness of breath, difficulty breathing and chest pain.
Changes in the mouth are commonly the first physical signs of an eating disorder. Harmful habits and nutritional deficiencies can have major repercussions on dental health. Eating disorders, especially bulimia, can cause cavities, extreme tooth sensitivity and enamel loss, and bleeding gums.
Issues with the eyes
Studies have shown that the macula, an area in the human eye that controls colored vision, and the nerve layers feeding it (retinal nerve fiber layer) are significantly thinner in the eyes of women with anorexia nervosa. As a result, eating disorders can result in ophthalmologic complications such as ruptured blood vessels or retinal detachment.
Chronic dehydration and electrolyte imbalance
Disorders in which patients purge or starve themselves not only deprive the body of food but also of water, which can result in severe dehydration. Considering that the body is about 60 percent water, extended dehydration can cause electrolyte imbalances that affect the heart and other organs.
A binge eating disorder can cause obesity, which is linked to type II diabetes. With this form of diabetes, your body either resists the effects of insulin—a hormone that regulates the movement of sugar into your cells—or doesn’t produce enough. The more fatty tissue you have, the more resistant your cells become to insulin—making obesity a primary risk factor for type II diabetes.
Treatment for an eating disorder is imperative to stop life-threatening conditions in their tracks. If you or someone you love might have an eating disorder, contact a medical professional immediately.