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Possible Complications

Medical problems

If not stopped, starving, stuffing, and purging can lead to irreversible physical damage and even death. Eating disorders can affect every cell, tissue, and organ in the body. The following is a partial list of the medical dangers associated with anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge eating disorder.

  • Irregular heartbeat, cardiac arrest, death
  • Kidney damage, renal failure, death
  • Liver damage (made worse by substance abuse), death
  • Loss of muscle mass. Broomstick arms and legs.
  • Permanent loss of bone mass; fractures and lifelong problems caused by fragile bones and joints. Osteopenia, osteoporosis, and dowager's hump
  • Destruction of teeth, rupture of esophagus, damage to lining of stomach; gastritis, gastric distress including bloat and distension
  • Disruption of menstrual cycle, infertility
  • Delayed growth and permanently stunted growth due to under-nutrition. Even after recovery and weight restoration, person may not catch up to expected normal height.
  • Weakened immune system
  • Icy hands and feet
  • Swollen glands in neck; stones in salivary duct, "chipmunk cheeks."
  • Excess hair on face, arms, and body. Long, downy lanugo hair that may be an emaciated body's attempt to be warm.
  • Dry, blotchy skin that has an unhealthy gray or yellow cast
  • Anemia, malnutrition. Disruption of body's fluid/mineral balance (electrolyte imbalance, loss of potassium; can be fatal)
  • Fainting spells, seizures, sleep disruption, bad dreams, mental fuzziness
  • Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), including shakiness, anxiety, restlessness, and a pervasive itchy sensation all over the body.
  • Anal and bladder incontinence, urinary tract infections, vaginal prolapse, and other problems related to weak and damaged pelvic floor muscles. Some problems may be related to chronic constipation, which is commonly found in people with anorexia nervosa. Structural damage and atrophy of pelvic floor muscles can be caused by low estrogen levels, excessive exercise, and inadequate nutrition. Surgery may be necessary to repair the damage.
  • Because of changes in the brain associated with under-nourishment, binge eating, and purging, the person does not, and perhaps cannot, weigh priorities, make judgments, and make choices that are logical and rational for normal people. Recovery, once the process has begun, requires time for the brain to readjust -- chemically and physically -- to normal and healthy patterns of eating. This is a combined physical/psychological problem.

 

Dieting risk

In one study, researchers asked women to reduce their caloric intake by 50%. After 15 weeks, the activity of their natural killer cells (a part of the immune system that combats viruses) fell 20%. (Health magazine, 1999)

 

The curse of washboard abs: women with well-defined belly muscles

Women with well-defined belly muscles may have as little as six percent body fat. The healthy range is 15-23 percent. Menses stop when fat falls below ten percent. The associated low levels of estrogen can lead to osteoporosis, even in 20-year-olds. Is a rippling stomach worth a dowager's hump? (Lew Lyon, exercise physiologist. Reported in Newsweek, May 5, 1997)

 

Psychological problems

As painful as the medical consequences of an eating disorder are, the psychological agony can be worse. It is a sad irony that the person who develops an eating disorder often begins with a diet, believing that weight loss will lead to improved self-esteem, self-confidence, and happiness. The cruel reality is that persistent undereating, binge eating, and purging have the opposite effect. Eating disordered individuals typically struggle with one or more of the following complications:

  • Depression that can lead to self-harm and suicide
  • Person feels out of control and helpless to do anything about problems
  • Anxiety, self-doubt
  • Guilt and shame, feelings of failure
  • Hypervigilance. Thinks other people are watching and waiting to confront or interfere.
  • Fear of discovery
  • Obsessive thoughts and preoccupations
  • Compulsive behaviors. Rituals dictate most activities.
  • Feelings of alienation and loneliness. "I don't fit in anywhere."
  • Feels hopeless and helpless. Cannot figure out how to make things better.
    May give up and sink into despair, fatalism, or suicidal depression.
  • Because of changes in the brain associated with under-nourishment, binge eating, and purging, the person does not, and perhaps cannot, weigh priorities, make judgments, and make choices that are logical and rational for normal people. Recovery, once the process is begun, requires time for the brain to readjust -- chemically and physically -- to normal and healthy patterns of eating. This is a combined physical/psychological problem.

Related problems

Eating disorders bring pain and suffering not only to the people who have them but also to their families, friends, and romantic partners. Coworkers and even casual acquaintances can be affected too. These problems include the following:

  • Disruption of family. Blame, fights over food, weight, treatment, and so forth.

  • Family members struggle with guilt, worry, anxiety, and frustration. Nothing they do seems to make things better.

  • Friendships and romantic relationships are damaged or destroyed. The person with the eating disorder is, or becomes, emotionally cool and withdrawn, crabby and cranky, minimally or not at all interested in sex, and secretive and controlling, often in a passive/aggressive manner.

  • If person binges and purges while driving (yes, some people do that), auto accidents may be the result of distraction.

  • If person is a student or athlete, teachers, coaches, and trainers may experience the same worry and frustration that plagues family members.

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