Anorexia; Bulimia; Binge eating
Anorexia nervosa is a very serious illness that has a wide range of effects on the body and mind. It is also associated with other problems, ranging from frequent infections and general poor health to life-threatening conditions. Some researchers believe that it should not be approached as a simple eating disorder but as a serious condition requiring staging according to severity.
At this time, no treatment program for anorexia nervosa is completely effective. Recovery rates vary between 23 - 50%, and relapses range from 4 - 27%. Recovery takes an average of 5 - 6 years from the time of diagnosis. Up to 30% of patients do not recover.
Even after treatment and weight gain, many patients continue to display characteristics of the disorder, including perfectionism and a drive for thinness, which could keep them at risk for recurrence.
Some research suggests that anorexia nervosa has the highest death rate of any psychiatric disorder. According to different studies, the risk for early death is higher for people with the following conditions or characteristics:
One of the most serious effects of anorexia is hormonal changes, which can have severe health consequences.
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 loss, and other problems. Low weight alone may not be sufficient to cause amenorrhea. Extreme fasting and purging behaviors may play an even stronger role in hormonal disturbance.
Adolescents with eating behaviors associated with anorexia (fasting, frequent exercise to lose weight, and self-induced vomiting) are at high risk for anxiety and depression in young adulthood. Alcohol and drug abuse are more common in patients with anorexia. Suicide has been estimated to account for as many as half the deaths in anorexia with studies showing up to a fifth of anorexic patients attempting suicide.
Heart disease is the most common medical cause of death in people with severe anorexia. The effects of anorexia on the heart are:
A primary danger to the heart is from abnormalities in the balance of minerals, such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphate, which are normally dissolved in the body's fluid. The dehydration and starvation that occurs with anorexia can reduce fluid and mineral levels and produce a condition known as electrolyte imbalance. Electrolytes (calcium and potassium) are critical for maintaining the electric currents necessary for a normal heartbeat. An imbalance in these electrolytes can be very serious and even life threatening unless fluids and minerals are replaced. Heart problems are a particular risk when anorexia is compounded by bulimia and the use of ipecac, a drug that causes vomiting.
After treatment and an increase in weight, estrogen levels are usually restored and periods resume. In severe anorexia, however, even after treatment, normal menstruation never returns in 25% of such patients.
Most pregnant women who have recovered from eating disorders have healthy pregnancies. However, some studies suggest that they may face higher risks for a number of complications, including cesarean sections, postpartum depression, miscarriages, complicated deliveries, and premature birth. Babies born to mothers with eating disorders have a higher risk for low birth weight.
Almost 90% of women with anorexia experience osteopenia (loss of bone minerals), and 40% have osteoporosis (more advanced loss of bone density). Up to two-thirds of children and adolescent girls with anorexia fail to develop strong bones during their critical growing period. Boys with anorexia also suffer from stunted growth. The less the patient weighs, the more severe the bone loss. Women with anorexia who also binge-purge face an even higher risk for bone loss.
Bone loss in women is mainly due to low estrogen levels that occur with anorexia. Other biologic factors in anorexia also may contribute to bone loss, including high levels of stress hormones (which impair bone growth) and low levels of calcium, certain growth factors, and DHEA (a weak male hormone). Weight gain, unfortunately, does not completely restore bone. Only achieving regular menstruation as soon as possible can protect against permanent bone loss. The longer the eating disorder persists the more likely the bone loss will be permanent.
Testosterone levels decline in boys as they lose weight, which also can affect their bone density. In young boys with anorexia, weight restoration produces some catch-up growth, but it may not produce full growth.
People with severe anorexia may suffer nerve damage that affects the brain and other parts of the body. The following nerve-related conditions have been reported:
Brain scans indicate that parts of the brain undergo structural changes and abnormal activity during anorexic states. Some of these changes return to normal after weight gain, but there is evidence that some damage may be permanent.
Anemia is a common result of anorexia and starvation. A particularly serious blood problem is pernicious anemia, which can be caused by severely low levels of vitamin B12. If anorexia becomes extreme, the bone marrow dramatically reduces its production of blood cells, a life-threatening condition called pancytopenia.
Bloating and constipation are both very common problems in people with anorexia.
In very late anorexia, the organs simply fail. The main warning sign is high blood levels of liver enzymes, which require immediate administration of calories.
Eating disorders are very serious for young people with type 1 diabetes. A study of over 2,000 women found that bulimia, or a combination of bulimia and anorexia, was more common among women with type 1 diabetes.
The complications of eating disorders that affect all patients are even more dangerous in this group of patients. Low blood sugar, for example, is a danger for anyone with anorexia, but it is a particularly dangerous risk for those with diabetes. If patients do not take their insulin, high blood sugar, which is also very dangerous, can occur. Unfortunately, patients with eating disorders may skip or reduce their daily insulin in order to decrease their intake of calories. Extremely high blood sugar levels can cause diabetic ketoacidosis, a condition in which acidic chemicals (ketones) accumulate in the body. This condition can lead to coma and death.
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