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physical symptoms & health problems

Any eating disorder carries with it lots of obvious, and sometimes less obvious, dangers. Most sufferers almost inevitably encounter health problems at some point. Many of these problems are minor but others can be extremely serious and may even lead to death.

Starvation (anorexia)

The lack of calories and nutrients associated with anorexia can have very serious effects on all major body systems and organs. The basic metabolic response to starvation is to conserve body tissues and energy. However, the body will also start to use its own tissue for energy, including muscle and organs. The liver and intestines typically lose the highest percentage of their own weight during starvation followed by the heart and kidneys which both lose a moderate amount of weight. Because the sufferer’s heart size may be reduced, they will experience low blood pressure and a slowed pulse. Total starvation is usually fatal in 8 to 12 weeks (The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy).

Dehydration (anorexia, bulimia)

Dehydration is fairly common amongst anorectics and bulimics. The healthy functioning of cells and tissues is dependent upon a certain level of water content in the body. Also, salt and other minerals need to be kept within a narrow range. In a person who has become dehydrated, it is possible they are suffering from a salt depletion as well as water. You should drink a minimum of 64 fl. oz. (or 1.5 liters) a day, and even more during hot temperatures. Long-term dehydration can eventually lead to kidney failure.

Muscle and cartilage deterioration (anorexia, bulimia)

As mentioned above, the body will start to use its own tissue (including muscle) for energy if needs be. However, over-exercise can also put a huge strain on muscles and cartilage, particularly if the exercise is concentrated on one area for long periods of time. For example, persistently using a treadmill and bike for too long can cause long-term damage and weakening of the knees.

Osteoporosis (anorexia)

Osteoporosis is a loss of protein matrix tissue (density) from bones, leaving them brittle and susceptible to fracture. Although it is a natural part of the aging process, the chances of developing osteoporosis later in life are significantly increased for anorectics. Also, for hormonal reasons, women are far more likely to develop osteoporosis than men.

Irregular heart rate (anorexia, bulimia, overeating)

An irregular or slow heart rate can mean that the heart muscle is undergoing changes. This is likely to lead to low blood pressure and, the lower blood pressure and heart rate goes, the greater the risk of heart failure.

For bulimics, purging can lead to potassium depletion, which in turn can cause problems with the heart. The heart can be affected by electrolyte imbalances.

For sufferers of compulsive overeating, obesity can lead to high blood pressure. High blood pressure can also lead to long-term cardiac problems.

High blood pressure (overeating)

Overweight people between the ages of 20 to 45 have a six times higher incidence of hypertension (high blood pressure) than do peers who are normal weight. The risk appears to be even greater for older obese people.

Diabetes (overeating)

Even moderate obesity, especially when the extra fat is carried in the stomach and abdomen (instead of hips and thighs), increases the risk of non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus.
Tooth decay (bulimia)

Repeated vomiting can quickly cause cavities and tooth decay. This is because the stomach acid erodes the enamel on the sufferer’s teeth. Often, the first person to raise their suspicions about the sufferer’s bulimia is their dentist. Contrary to the belief of many bulimics, brushing one’s teeth immediately after vomiting usually increases the rate of tooth decay. The sufferer should drink water instead, as this is gentler on the teeth and will help replenish lost fluids.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease/acid reflux (bulimia)

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (known commonly as G.E.R.D. or acid reflux) is a condition where the liquid content of the stomach regurgitates (backs up, or refluxes) into the esophagus. A muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter controls the opening between the stomach and the esophagus. This opening usually remains closed and only opens when you swallow food. With G.E.R.D., the muscle fails to close properly and contents of the stomach and can travel back up into the esophagus. Acid reflux carries potential long-term risks of cancer and can be extremely painful for the sufferer, although treatments are available and the condition can often be eased and even reversed.

Inflammation & rupture of the esophagus (bulimia)

Stomach acid irritates the esophagus, causing inflammation and raw areas, sometimes making swallowing painful. Of greater concern is a rupture of the esophagus because this can be fatal in some cases. A Mallory-Weiss Tear is the technical term for the rupture or tearing of the mucous membrane of the esophagus at its junction with the stomach. Repeated vomiting, although it is possible for it to occur after just one purging episode, can lead to a tear of the esophagus. The sufferer will have bright red blood in their vomit. Although a tear often heals itself after a few days, this is not always the case. Consult a doctor if you or a loved one is vomiting blood.

Stomach ulceration (bulimia)

A peptic ulcer refers to an area of the stomach or duodenal lining (the tube that leads away from the stomach) that becomes eroded by stomach acid. These are known as stomach and duodenal ulcers, collectively known as peptic ulcers. The symptoms can vary, with some people not noticing anything out of the ordinary but others may vomit blood and experience abdomen or chest pains. The pain is usually increased when the individual eats or drinks. Peptic ulcers can be serious and need immediate attention if you are vomiting blood or passing digested blood in your stools.

Obesity (bulimia, overeating)

Most of the health problems experienced by sufferers of compulsive overeating and binge-eating disorder are linked to being overweight. However, obesity can be a problem in itself, not least because of the shame and guilt associated with binge-eating disorder. Obese people often avoid social events and this can have an impact on their relationships. Although obesity is less common amongst bulimics, it is not unusual for the sufferer’s weight to fluctuate because of the binge purge episodes associated with the disease. Most bulimics are not underweight.

Heart failure (anorexia, bulimia, overeating)

The heart muscle is extremely sensitive and can become thin and flabby from nutritional deficiency. A lack of calories and protein can have a negative effect on the heart and body chemicals may become so imbalanced that heart failure occurs.

Mineral and electrolyte imbalances, common with bulimia, can lead to cardiac arrest. Although unlikely, there is a risk of heart attack the very first time the sufferer purges.

On the other hand, high cholesterol and blood pressure (often a problem with binge-eating disorder and compulsive overeating) can eventually lead to cardiac difficulties, including a heart attack.