Complications of Anorexia
Anorexia nervosa is a very serious illness that has a wide range of effects on the body and mind. It is frequently associated with a number of other medical problems, ranging from frequent infections and general poor health to life-threatening conditions.
Psychological Effects and Substance Abuse
Adolescents with eating behaviors associated with anorexia are at high risk for anxiety and depression in young adulthood. Patients with anorexia are at risk for suicidal behavior or attempts. Alcohol and drug abuse are also common in patients with anorexia nervosa.
One of the most serious effects of anorexia nervosa is hormonal changes, which can have severe health consequences.
- Reproductive hormones, including estrogen and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), are lower. Estrogen is important for healthy hearts and bones. DHEA, a weak male hormone, may also be important for bone health and for other functions.
- Thyroid hormones are lower.
- Stress hormones are higher.
- Growth hormones are lower. Children and adolescents with anorexia may experience retarded growth.
The result of many of these hormonal abnormalities in women is long-term, irregular or absent menstruation (amenorrhea). This can occur early on in anorexia, even before severe weight loss. Over time this causes infertility, bone density loss, and other problems.
Heart disease is the most common medical cause of death in people with severe anorexia nervosa. The effects of anorexia on the heart are:
- Dangerous heart rhythms, including slow rhythms known as bradycardia, may develop. Such abnormalities can show up even in teenagers with anorexia.
Review Date: 02/18/2011
Reviewed By: David B. Merrill, MD, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University Medical Center, New York, NY. Also reviewed by Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital; and David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.