The term eating disorders covers various behaviours, attitudes, and feelings related to our food and body. In the UK, approximately 1.25 million people suffer from an eating disorder, 75 percent of which are female. Fortunately, growing awareness is pushing people to seek eating disorder counselling services to help start their journey towards recovery.
While a record number of young people are seeking treatment, it’s important to shed light on the effects that eating disorders can have on your body’s systems. Let’s take an in-depth look at how the behaviours resulting from an eating disorder affect your body’s internal systems.
While eating disorders can cause severe physical damage to different systems of the body, the most prominent affected is the gastrointestinal tract. In the beginning, you may experience mild, such as nausea and vomiting, but as time passes, the likelihood of severe complications increases. This can include heartburn and esophageal erosions.
One study shows that about 50 percent of females who suffer from an eating disorder also meet the criteria for irritable bowel syndrome, while 98 percent fulfil criteria for functional gut disorder. The latter is classified as having a gastrointestinal disorder without the presence of anatomical gastrointestinal disease, making them common among people with eating disorders.
Fluctuations in Blood Sugar Levels
Although there’s no direct link between anorexia nervosa and diabetes, the eating disorder does increase a person’s risk of blood sugar imbalance. When a person suffers from anorexia nervosa, they restrict the amount of food they eat, which can cause a variety of metabolic disturbances. With time, it’s possible that this causes blood sugar levels to fluctuate, and people face low blood sugar rather than high blood sugar, which is more common in diabetes.
Damage to The Kidneys
Disordered eating habits and constantly checking one’s weight can increase the risk of dehydration. People suffering from dehydration tend to experience headaches, dizziness, and an irregularly fast heartbeat. Failing to address dehydration as soon as possible can contribute to electrolyte imbalance.
Electrolytes are crucial to ensure proper heart function, so prolonged dehydration can risk causing severe damage to the cardiovascular system. To make matters worse, it can also lead to kidney damage, the signs of which are very similar to dehydration, so it’s easy to overlook until the later stages. Without timely intervention, irreversible kidney damage can occur, and you can end up needing dialysis or a transplant.
Increased Risk of Osteoporosis
Because of malnutrition, people with an eating disorder are more likely to develop early-onset osteoporosis. Restricting food intake can make you deficient in crucial minerals like calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium. Inappropriate nutrition affects the bones’ ability to regenerate their structures. As your bone mass decreases, your bones grow brittle, which indicates a considerably higher risk of developing fractures.
Over time, eating disorders like bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa can lead to hormonal imbalances. The same applies to binge eating disorder, as rapidly shifting eating behaviours cause fluctuations in weight. This leads to the body building up new fat stores (as in the case of binge eating disorder), or eliminating them (as in the case of anorexia nervosa).
The primary role of the body’s fat stores is to release hormones, but they do so according to the density of the fat tissue. So, when the amount of fat is constantly changing, hormone levels can fluctuate, which can have adverse effects on the gastrointestinal tract, reproductive system, and various other organs.
Higher Risk of Cardiovascular Complications
When disordered eating behaviours include restricting the intake of food, your heart grows weak and muscles become smaller due to a lack of nutrition. This makes it less effective at circulating blood throughout the body. Proper circulation is crucial for ensuring that other systems work at full capacity, but without it, organ functionality can go down.
In addition, anorexia can affect the heart in other ways, like causing abnormally low blood pressure. This can lead to symptoms such as nausea, fatigue, and light-headedness. In the event that blood pressure falls to dangerous levels, the body can go into shock, prompting symptoms like shallow breathing and a weak pulse. In this case, you’ll require urgent medical care to prevent irreversible damage.
High Susceptibility to Hypothermia
Fluctuations in weight and consequently, fat reserves, can inhibit your body’s ability to regulate its internal temperature. When the body doesn’t have enough nutrients to fuel the organs, it reduces metabolic processes, which create heat, to make up for the nutritional imbalance. This can be especially dangerous when the weather gets cold, as people with anorexia are more susceptible to hypothermia.
Moving Towards Recovery
While eating disorders can lead to dangerous symptoms, it is possible to recover with the help of a certified psychotherapist who understands your concerns. Seeking appropriate therapy for eating disorders is the first step towards improving your relationship with food and your own body.