Anorexia nervosa is a serious condition that can have life-threatening consequences. Contrary to how the media portrays anorexia, it is not just about being thin and having a low weight. Anorexia also affects the way your body functions. The National Eating Disorder Association reports that people with anorexia may experience physical complications such as depression, anxiety, osteoporosis, and heart problems. Not to mention that it can also lead to seizures or death if left untreated. In this blog post, we will explore how anorexia affects your body.
What is anorexia nervosa?
The DSM-5 defines anorexia as the following:
- Restriction of energy intake relative to requirements, leading to a significant low body weight in the context of the age, sex, developmental trajectory, and physical health (less than minimally normal/expected).
- Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat or persistent behavior that interferes with weight gain.
- Disturbed by one’s body weight or shape, self-worth influenced by body weight or shape, or persistent lack of recognition of seriousness of low bodyweight.
Under this diagnosis, there are then 2 subtypes of anorexia:
- Restricting type
- Binge eating/purging type
There are many concerns and critiques about this definition that is used in the medical community. Mainly due to the mention of ‘significant low body weight’ because we know that eating disorders can come in all shapes & sizes (a post about weight stigma and eating disorders is coming soon!). But, this gives us an idea of what constitutes a medical anorexia diagnosis.
What starvation is doing to your body
Lower body temperature
In order for your body to conserve energy, it is going to decrease your body temperature. This will be particularly noticeable in the extremities such as your hands and feet. This is also a reason why many with anorexia develop fine hair all over the body and face called ‘lanugo.’ Your body is literally trying to find ways to conserve energy while staying alive.
Slowed heart rate
When I was active in my own eating disorder, I remember multiple times that doctors and nurses would comment on my low heart rate. They would make comments like ‘wow, you must be an athlete!’
But, I wasn’t an athlete.
What can look like a healthy, athletic heart could also be a starving heart. See, when you are in a caloric deficit and your body thinks that it is starving, it will do whatever it can to prevent using any precious calories. It will start to slow down the processes in your body that require energy. This includes using the heart muscles to pump your blood.
How can we tell the difference between an athletic heart and a starving heart? There is actually a pretty simple test. Simply take a resting heart rate and then walk across the room. If your heart rate increases by 50%-300%, then sadly the low heart rate is possibly due to a starving heart.
Another way your body will try to conserve energy is by slowing down the digestion process. This can lead to gastroparesis and constipation. I personally spent years going to different GI doctors, having exploratory procedures done to figure out why I had such awful constipation. And not one healthcare provider screened more for an eating disorder.
If you or your loved one are active in eating disorder behaviors and find that you can only eat a small amount before feeling ‘too full’ or ‘bloated,’ then it is likely because you need to eat more. Once you stop restricting and providing your body with consistent nourishment, it will begin to allow energy to be spent on literally moving the food through your digestive system, and the feeling of fullness and bloating will eventually get better.
Decreased fertility & libido
Our bodies are incredibly intelligent. When we deprive it of nourishment for a long period of time, it will realize that the body is not ready to procreate. The body will decrease hormone production, which for both sexes will decrease libido. For females, it will also possibly make their periods stop, cause vaginal dryness, and an increased risk of bladder infection. For males, decreased hormone production can possibly cause erectile dysfunction.
I tell my clients time and again that a hungry brain is an anxious brain. While for some people restriction can cause a numbing of feelings, most will feel animalistic anxiety and paranoia because the body does not feel safe in a starved state. The only way out of this state of anxiety is to adequately and consistently nourish the body.
Malnutrition looks different for everyone
It’s important for us to remember that just as eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes, the way our bodies respond to restriction and starvation is also unique. Some will experience a multitude of GI issues, while some may not experience any. This is why it is so important to be able to look at the big picture of symptoms and issues when helping a loved one and to encourage them that the most important thing to do is adequately nourish their body and practice self-compassion.
If you want more help with learning how to use the plate method in eating disorder recovery (or if you just want a new easy and visual approach to nutrition), then check out my FREE plate method handout!
Gaudiani, J. L. (2019). Sick enough: A guide to the medical complications of eating disorders.