According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any other mental illness. Eating disorders are also a high risk for co-occurring disorders like depression, substance abuse, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I’ve said it many time that eating disorders kill. Many people now know that all types of eating disorders are dangerous to one’s health, but do they truly understand why?
There are tons of health risks associated with eating disorders, almost too many to name in a single setting. I personally have quite a few of the health issues due to my bulimia nervosa, so I know first hand how deadly eating disorders can be. When I think of eating disorder health risks there are a few common, simple things that come to mind. I think of damaged teeth or acid reflux from purging, or the loss of hair or the menstrual cycle (Amenorrhea). I also think of dry hair, nails and skin. All of these things are risks associated with eating disorders, but there are so many more serious health problems that can arise from eating disorder behaviors. Furthermore, many of these smaller issues mentioned are symptoms of far more serious concerns.
Some of the most common but deadly health concerns of anorexia and bulimia nervosa are dehydration, malnutrition and electrolyte imbalances. Dehydration is caused from a lack of a sufficient fluid intake, caused by restriction, laxative/diuretic use or purging or a combination of all three. Dehydration can lead to severe health issues such as kidney and heart failure, seizures, brain damage and death. Malnutrition can be caused by over or under eating which leads to not consuming or absorbing enough energy, protein, or micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals). Dehydration also contributes to the drying of skin, hair and nails. Malnutrition is a severe issue that can result in respiratory infections, kidney failure, heart attack, blindness and death. Electrolyte imbalances are often the result of restriction or purging and occurs when the body does not get enough of the electrolytes it needs such as potassium, sodium, magnesium and calcium. Electrolytes are needed to keep nerves, joints, bones, teeth, muscle impulses, kidneys and the heart healthy. Without these electrolytes, kidney and heart failure are serious possibilities.
I personally have had issues with all three health problems listed above. When I had my blood work done a month ago, my results came back telling me that I was malnourished, dehydrated, and had low vitamin D and B12. It was sort of a huge reality check because it is only a matter of time before these problems lead to even more severe issues. It hit me that my eating disorder is truly killing me from the inside out. I also have had to have a ton of dental work done in order to repair the damage I have done by purging for so many years. I was lucky that I didn’t completely lose all my teeth. My smile is the one thing I like, so I know how important it is to take care of now. I also know now that my treatment is even more important because until I start to properly nourish my body and mind, my health will continue to decline. It really was a wake up call.
Some of the more serious health consequences of eating disorders are the tearing of the esophagus, gastric rupture, gastrointestinal bleeding and reflux issues. Purging can cause the esophagus to tear or even rupture. The acid from excessive vomiting slowly deteriorates the lining in the esophagus, making it prone to tears and ruptures. If a tear or rupture were to occur, the individual is likely to die from excessive blood loss before an ambulance could arrive. Gastric ruptures are spontaneous stomach erosion, perforation or ruptures. Binging on huge amounts of food causes these gastric perforations. The stomach can only hold so much and will rupture, which causes internal bleeding. Gastric erosion is caused by the over production of stomach acid, which wears away at the stomach’s lining, making it more prone to ruptures and perforation. Gastrointestinal bleeding is when there is bleeding into the digestive tract. All of these gastrointestinal issues can result in severe internal bleeding and death. Esophageal reflux is when partially digested food and stomach acid is regurgitated back into the esophagus, causing damage to its lining. Sometimes this issue can become so severe that no food can be kept down long enough to fully digest. When this occurs, medical attention must be sought immediately or death could occur. Reflux also can contribute to the esophagus tearing or rupturing as well.
I have been so very fortunate not to have any of these more severe issues so far, but I know that if I continue to binge and purge, it will only be a matter of time before something major happens. I know that if I keep doing what I’m doing, I’m practically asking for death to take another or me in one way. Being bulimic makes me more prone than anorexics might be to all of the gastrointestinal and esophageal issues due to the cycles of binging and purging. That being said, these health consequences are risks to every single eating disorder, not just bulimia nervosa.
Along with the health consequences I sort of expected, there were also some that completely shocked me. When I read them off the list that the Bulimia Anorexia Nervosa Association gave me in one of my psychotherapy groups, my mouth almost fell open in surprise. I couldn’t believe that my bulimia put me at a greater risk for something like cancer. Some of the more shocking health consequences included cancer, Barrett’s esophagus, and impaired neuromuscular functioning. Eating disorders can cause cancers of the throat, larynx and esophagus and is highly linked to purging. Liver cancer and jaundice are also risks associated with eating disorders of all types. Barrett’s esophagus is a disease that involves changes in the cells of the esophagus and is highly related to esophageal cancer. Neuromuscular functioning can also be impaired due to a lack of vitamins and minerals, such as potassium. The impairment of neuromuscular functioning is linked to malnutrition, which is common with restriction and purging.
Another health consequence I was startled by was temporary paralysis and muscle weakness. The inability to move the muscles can be caused in the spinal cord and brain when they have been deprived of essential nutrients, especially potassium. The degeneration of nerve cells also can play a role in paralysis. If this nutrient deficiency is left untreated, the paralysis can become permanent. Also, eating disorders can cause seizures. Seizures can be due to the fact that the brain has been starved of oxygen and essential nutrients for a long period of time. It can also be caused by dehydration, ketoacidosis, and hyperglycemia. Both seizures and paralysis are serious issues that can result in death if not dealt with.
Some more serious health issues that I won’t go into detail about are Anemia (low iron), diabetes, low platelet counts, arthritis, osteoporosis, osteopenia, hypertension, hypotension, muscle atrophy, bad circulation, heart attack, kidney infections and failure, liver failure, infertility, ulcers, and digestive problems. Many of these are well known in society but are not known to be associated with eating disorders. However, they are the consequences of eating disorder behaviors and can lower quality of life, and for some, the quantity of life lived. There are also many mental health risks associated with eating disorders like depression, memory loss, fatigue, irritability, insomnia, and anxiety.
I have been incredibly blessed not to have anything other than a few vitamin deficiencies, dehydration and malnutrition. Especially since the issues I do have can cause so many more fatal illnesses and problems. Learning about all of the health risks was honestly a huge reality check. I wanted to get help for my eating disorder before knowing all of the risks associated with it, but after learning about them, I am even more determined to get my bulimia under control. I have to choose my life, or risk any number of fatal health consequences that come with an eating disorder.
Article Courtesy of Substance For You very own blogger on all things Eating Disorders: Jordyn Dalton or @JordynDalton (Twitter)
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