Anorexia, also called anorexia nervosa, is a serious eating disorder that causes a strong fear of gaining weight. People with anorexia avoid eating and might over-exercise to control weight and body image. This intense fear causes them to extremely limit their food intake to the point of starvation. 

But food isn’t the only problem with anorexia: Your body becomes neglected because you create a severely unhealthy way to cope with emotional problems. 

There are two types of anorexia: restrictive anorexia, where you limit how much you eat, and binging or purging anorexia, where you eat or overeat and then throw up or use laxatives to get rid of the food. It’s common to go back and forth between these types. 

What impact does anorexia have on the body?

In the short-term, anorexia can causes extreme weight loss, malnutrition, and other symptoms like:

If starvation lasts, you can have more serious problems as your body starts to shut down without enough nutrition. With treatment, though, you can recover and reverse some complications from anorexia. Even after this, one-quarter of people with anorexia have long-term health effects and complications.

Hormone and growth problems

A low body weight and starvation disrupts your hormone system. Your body needs cholesterol and fat to make hormones, so without these nutrients, your hormone levels fall. Your body also responds to the stress of severe calorie restriction by releasing cortisol. This suppresses your hypothalamus-pituitary axis, which signals your body to make and release hormones. 

Without this axis, your body doesn’t make luteinizing hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone, which stops ovulation and leads to low estrogen. Your ovaries stop releasing eggs, and you lose your period. 

Bone diseases

Anorexia also raises your risk for bone diseases. Estrogen protects your bones, and a lack of this hormone can cause osteopenia and osteoporosis. These diseases lead to loss of bone density, weak bones, and a higher risk of fractures

Boys and men with anorexia also have a higher risk of bone disease. Severe food restriction causes low testosterone and vitamin D levels, which are important for protecting bones.

Poor growth

Anorexia often first starts during puberty and the teenage years, which are critical years for maturing your organ systems and for overall growth. Teens with anorexia might become shorter adults because of disrupted growth, and they might have long-term issues with their bones.

Moreover, starvation causes problems with your thyroid, which interferes with growth hormones, and it also causes problems with minerals like calcium and potassium, which you need for bone growth. 

Pregnancy complications and low birth weights

Despite having hormone problems and no periods, anorexia doesn’t always cause fertility problems. You’re often still able to get pregnant. If you’ve recovered from anorexia and later get pregnant, your baby is likely to have a low birth weight, though. 

Lots of women find that weight gain during pregnancy is hard and might struggle with eating even after anorexia recovery. This can cause problems with nutrition, which can affect your baby’s health.

Heart problems

Starvation and over-exercise puts a lot of stress on your heart muscle. Without enough electrolytes and hydration, your heart struggles to keep a steady rhythm and speed. This can lead to fainting, low blood pressure, weakness, and tiredness. 

Over time, the heart muscle can become permanently damaged. Chronic low weight and lack of nutrition can cause heart growth problems and muscle loss, especially in teen years. This can lead to:

Some heart problems like fainting will go away once you start to eat healthy amounts and regain vitamins and electrolytes. Some of these complications can last your lifetime, though. 

Neurological problems

Your brain needs a lot of energy from food to function. It needs glucose for energy, fat to insulate your nerves and brain cells, and electrolytes to send signals to your brain cells. 

Without these nutrients, you’ll have trouble concentrating, numbness and tingling as your nerves lose protection, as your muscles cramp, and as you face a risk for seizures. Starvation also causes your brain to shrink.

Anorexia treatment and eating healthy amounts of calories can reverse some of these problems. Research, however, shows that while your brain can regain some volume, anorexia can lead to permanent shrinkage. This permanent damage can cause problems with memory, concentration, and emotions. 

Does anorexia leave you in a state of permanent physical neglect?

With treatment, most anorexia complications and symptoms are reversible. The longer starvation lasts, though, the greater the risk for long-term problems. Talk to your doctor about anorexia treatment.

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Medically Reviewed on 11/18/2021
References
SOURCES:

Mayo Clinic: "Anorexia nervosa," "Mitral valve prolapse."

McGill Journal of Medicine: "Anorexia Nervosa: The physiological consequences of starvation and the need for primary prevention efforts."

Merck Manual Professional Version: "Anorexia Nervosa."

National Eating Disorders Association: "Health Consequences," "Eating Disorders in Men & Boys."

University of Rochester Medical Center: "Anorexia Nervosa.”