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Long-Term Effects of Anorexia Nervosa on Psychological Health and Physical Well-being

Last Updated
March 14, 2023
a woman struggling with the long term effects of anorexia nervosa

Psychological Effects
Physical Effects
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Long-Term Effects Of Anorexia Nervosa
- Mood disorders
- Personality disorders
- Self-injury
- Suicidal thoughts
- Suicidal attempts
- Substance misuse

- Can lead to fractures and deformities of the spine
- Cardiovascular complications
- Can develop several nutritional deficiencies
- Can suffer from gastrointestinal complications
- Menstrual cycle can be disrupted
- Can lead to sexual dysfunction

The long-term effects of anorexia nervosa, a serious eating disorder, include significant impacts on an individual's physical health and psychological well-being. This article delves into the long-term consequences of anorexia nervosa on mental health, as well as its physical health ramifications. Additionally, we will discuss strategies for prevention and recovery, focusing on the crucial roles of early intervention and effective treatments.

long-term effects of anorexia nervosa infographics

The Psychological Effects of Anorexia Nervosa

A woman depressed with Anorexia Nervosa in a post about long-term effects of anorexia nervosa

Depression, Anxiety, and Other Mood Disorders

Anorexia nervosa can have a wide range of psychological effects on an individual. The most prevalent mental disorder types are mood disorders like depression and anxiety[2]. Among them, the most common type is Depression, with a prevalence rate of approximately 40–45%, followed by a range of anxiety disorders with a prevalence rate of 60%[2].

Personality Disorders

Research indicates that individuals who suffer from anorexia nervosa are also more likely to have personality disorders [2]. The most common type of personality disorder is obsessive-compulsive disorder, followed by borderline personality disorder[12].

Self-Injury, Suicidal Thoughts, or Suicidal Attempts

Studies show that suicidal attempts in AN patients are common, with estimated ranges of 3.0% to 29.7%[13]. Major depression is the most common psychiatric comorbidity associated with suicidal attempts, followed by borderline personality disorder and substance abuse [14] .

Alcohol and Substance Misuse

Studies show that patients with binge-eating/purging anorexia nervosa may misuse alcohol and substances although they are afraid of gaining weight, while patients with restricting anorexia nervosa may not use substances because of their strict dieting regimens and control over food intake[15]. The misuse of alcohol and substances also increases the risk of suicidal behavior in AN patients, as substance abuse can lead to impaired judgment and impulsivity[17].

The Physical Effects of Anorexia Nervosa

Bone Health

Long-term denial of food intake affects many physiological systems, including the bones. Anorexia nervosa increases the risk of low bone mineral density (BMD) [1], osteopenia (loss of bone calcium), and osteoporosis (a progressive loss of bone density), which are conditions that can lead to fractures and deformities of the spine [2].

Cardiovascular System

A doctor holding a heart shaped object in a post about long-term effects of anorexia nervosa

Research reveals that 80% of patients with eating disorders suffer from cardiovascular complications[2]. Severe anorexia nervosa can lead to an irregular heartbeat, arrhythmia, abnormally low blood pressure, and a decreased heart rate[2]. It is also associated with an increased risk of heart failure, which can be life-threatening [3].

Nutritional Deficiencies

A person suffering from eating disorders usually has a poor diet and can develop several nutritional deficiencies; the most common deficiencies are zinc and Vitamin D, followed by copper, selenium, and vitamin B1 [4]. These vitamin deficiencies can lead to anemia, a weakened immune system, poor bone health, and can even interfere with the metabolism of essential fatty acids and carbohydrates [5].

Gastrointestinal System

This eating disorder can also cause significant damage to the gastrointestinal system. Anorexia Nervosa patients can suffer from gastrointestinal complications such as hypokalemia, hypomagnesemia, and hypocalcemia [2]. Refeeding to gain weight can cause further gastrointestinal problems, such as bloating, distention, and abdominal cramps[2].

Reproductive Health

Women

Anorexia Nervosa can have serious effects on reproductive health. In women, the menstrual cycle can be disrupted or cease completely due to significantly low body weight[6]. Long-term reproductive health risks include infertility and pregnancy complications [6]. Further, the offspring of women with anorexia may be at a higher risk for malformations or low birth weight, as maternal undernutrition during pregnancy can affect the development of the fetus[6].

Men

In men, anorexia can lead to sexual dysfunction as low testosterone levels, and depleted energy reserves can cause a lack of interest in sex or erectile dysfunction [7]. It can also cause decreased muscle mass, infertility, and an inability to gain weight caused by decreased metabolism and energy intake[7].

Table about anorexia nervosa in a post about long-term effects of anorexia nervosa

Strategies for Prevention and Recovery

Early detection and intervention can help individuals with anorexia nervosa to prevent further psychological and physical damage. Treatment for anorexia nervosa typically includes a combination of psychotherapy and medical interventions, depending on the severity of symptoms. Psychotherapeutic intervention includes [10];

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)- This type of therapy focuses on identifying and correcting negative thought patterns and behaviors associated with the disorder.
  • Maudsley method - This type of family-based treatment typically involves the parents in helping their child return to a healthy weight.
  • Mechanism-Based Behavioral Treatments on the Horizon - This emerging field of therapy seeks to address the underlying mechanisms (neurobiological, social, and psychological) that lead to disordered eating behaviors.
  • Third-Wave Treatments - These treatments, such as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, promote mindfulness and distress tolerance to help individuals recognize and manage their emotions to break the unhealthy eating patterns cycle.

In addition to psychotherapeutic treatments, nutritional counseling can help individuals struggling with disordered eating habits to make healthier food choices and ultimately return to a healthy weight[11].

In extreme cases, hospitalization or residential care may be necessary for individuals who are severely underweight and at risk of medical complications[9].

Helpful Resources For Those Struggling With Eating Disorders

Many online resources, support groups, and hotlines are available to individuals struggling with disordered eating. Listed are some of them.

  • Online Therapy - This service will provide you with a qualified personal therapist that guides and treat you from start to finish. Since it is a paid subscription, you will have complete confidentiality over your current health condition.
  • National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) - National Eating Disorders Association is dedicated to supporting individuals and families affected by eating disorders. It provides helplines, support groups, clinical treatment referrals, and other resources.
  • National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) - ANAD provides support to those affected by eating disorders, their families, and professionals who work with them.

Conclusion

The mental health community takes Anorexia Nervosa seriously due to its high prevalence rate and the immense danger this condition poses over time. It is important to seek professional help if you or someone you know has signs or symptoms of anorexia. Proper treatment is necessary for a successful recovery and achieving a healthy lifestyle.

FAQ

Can anorexia permanently damage your body?

Yes. In some cases, when the patient's weight can not be restored, anorexia can cause permanent damage to the body, such as weakened bones, malnutrition, and organ failure. However, with proper treatment and support, most people with anorexia can make a full recovery.

Does anorexia destroy the brain?

In extreme cases, yes. Anorexia can cause serious damage to the brain due to long-term malnutrition and dehydration. If left untreated, anorexia can cause permanent brain damage and even death. In most cases, however, with proper treatment and support, people with anorexia can make a full recovery.

References

  1. Bone health in anorexia nervosa
  2. Long-term consequences of anorexia nervosa
  3. Cardiovascular complications of anorexia nervosa
  4. Micronutrients Deficiencies in 374 Severely Malnourished Anorexia Nervosa Inpatients
  5. Micronutrient Facts
  6. Menstruation disorders in adolescents with eating disorders
  7. Disturbances of sex hormones in anorexia nervosa in the male
  8. Characteristics of Suicide Attempts in Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa
  9. Anorexia Nervosa
  10. Current Therapeutic Approaches to Anorexia Nervosa
  11. Eating disorder treatment: Know your options
  12. The prevalence of personality disorders among those with eating disorders
  13. Suicide Attempts in Women with Eating Disorders
  14. Borderline Personality Disorder With Depression Confers Significant Risk of Suicidal Behavior in Mood Disorder Patients—A Comparative Study
  15. The Link Between Alcoholism and Eating Disorders
  16. Suicidal Behavior and Alcohol Abuse

⚠️Disclaimer: The information provided on this health blog is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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