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Medical Consequences of Eating Disorders: Anorexia, Bulimia, and Bingeing

Eating disorders — particularly anorexia nervosa — can be deadly. The following lists explain the many medical consequences of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

Five to 20 percent of anorexics will die.

Anorexia nervosa may cause the following problems:

  • The heart muscle changes, and its beat becomes irregular, potentially leading to cardiac arrest and death.

  • Dehydration, kidney stones, and kidney failure may result in death.

  • Liver damage (made worse if substance abuse is also a factor) may result in death.

  • Menstruation often stops, even before extensive weight loss. This is called amenorrhea and can lead to infertility and bone loss or osteoporosis.

  • Muscles waste away, resulting in weakness and loss of function.

  • Slowed digestion caused by a lack of energy and diminished body function results in bowel irritation and constipation.

  • Permanent loss of bone calcium leads to fractures and lifelong problems of osteoporosis.

  • The person becomes intolerant to cold (especially in the hands and feet), and has sunken eyes, hair loss, bloating, and dry skin.

  • The immune system weakens.

  • Skin becomes dry and blotchy and has an unhealthy gray or yellow cast.

  • Anemia and malnutrition may result.

  • Fainting spells, sleep disruption, bad dreams, and mental fuzziness may result.

In addition to these complications, the following common medical complications associated with bulimia nervosa result from repeated cycles of bingeing and purging:

  • Loss of muscle mass from excessive vomiting may occur.

  • Vomiting and abuse of laxatives and diuretics flush sodium chloride and potassium from the body, resulting in an electrolyte imbalance. Arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) can result, which can ultimately lead to heart failure and death.

  • Stomach acids in vomit can erode tooth enamel, resulting in damage such as cavities and discoloration. The acids can go into the salivary glands in the month, causing swollen glands in the neck, stones in the salivary ducts, and “chipmunk cheeks.”

  • Self-induced vomiting can result in irritation and tears in the lining of the throat, esophagus, and stomach.

  • Laxative abuse can create a dependence and result in an inability to have normal bowel movements.

  • Abuse of medications to help induce vomiting, such as ipecac, can result in toxicity, heart failure, and death.

  • Peptic ulcers may occur.

The medical consequences of binge eating disorder are most often associated with obesity and include the following:

  • High blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels, and elevated triglyceride levels, which may cause hardening of the arteries and heart disease.

  • Increased risk of bowel, breast, and reproductive cancers.

  • Increased risk of diabetes.

  • Increased risk of arthritic damage to the joints.

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