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How does anorexia nervosa affect my body?

Anorexia nervosa, a serious, potentially life-threatening disease characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss, has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Its onset is typically in early to mid-adolescence, and it is one of the most common psychiatric diagnoses in young women seeking treatment. Among the physical effects of anorexia are:
  • anemia, often caused by iron deficiency, which reduces the blood's ability to carry oxygen and causes fatigue, difficulty breathing, dizziness, headache, insomnia, pale skin, loss of hunger and irregular heartbeat
  • elevated cholesterol, which occurs because eating disorders affect liver function, reducing bile acid secretions that contain cholesterol and enabling more cholesterol to remain in the body rather than being secreted
  • low body temperature and cold hands and feet
  • constipation and bloating
  • shrunken organs
  • low blood pressure
  • slowed metabolism and reflexes
  • slowed heart rate, which can be mistaken as a sign of physical fitness
  • irregular heartbeat, which can lead to cardiac arrest
  • slowed thinking and cognitive and mood changes secondary to long-term starvation
Women with anorexia have an intense fear of becoming fat and, therefore, are obsessed with food, body shape and size. It is common for women with anorexia, for example, to collect recipes and prepare gourmet meals for family and friends, but not eat any of the food themselves. Instead, they allow their bodies to wither away and disappear, gauging their hunger as a measure of their self-control. Women struggling with anorexia diet because they want to improve their feelings of self-esteem and love, not to lose a few pounds. Depression and insomnia often occur with eating disorders.

Women struggling with anorexia may tend to keep their feelings to themselves, seldom disobey authority and are often described as perfectionists. These individuals are often good students and excellent athletes. Anorexia is common in dancers and competitive athletes in sports such as gymnastics and figure skating, where success is measured not only on athletic performance, but also on having the ideal body.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.