The Effects of Eating Disorders & How They Can Lead to Addiction

long-term effects of eating disorders

Anorexia. Bulimia. Binge eating. Not only can these eating disorders harm a person’s body, they can also affect a person’s mind – co-occurring alongside other psychological and dangerous disorders, like substance addiction, and leaving lasting emotional effects.

Body: Physical Effects of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders can lead to an array of physical effects, both minor and severe. Dry skin, lost muscle mass, brittle hair and nails, and extreme thinness are some of the more obvious physical symptoms. However, eating disorders can also cause further physical conditions, such as Type II diabetes and pancreatitis. Other long-term, physical effects of eating disorders can include:

  • Heart Problems Eating disorders can severely impact your cardiovascular health, with the most detrimental being anorexia nervosa. When the body does not get enough calories, it will start to break down its own muscles and tissue for fuel. The most important muscle in the body is the heart. When it does not get enough fuel to pump blood, or when it starts to break down, the risk for heart failure increases. Bulimia may also result in heart failure, as vomiting depletes the body of vital minerals and electrolytes, like potassium (which the heart needs to function).
  • Dehydration and Malnutrition – Restricting your diet, or purging out important nutrients, can cause severe deficiencies in your body. Dehydration typically means that your body is not getting enough fluids to properly work – this can cause kidney failure, seizures, fatigue, constipation and muscle cramps. Malnutrition means your body is not getting sufficient nutrients and proteins, which can lower immune function and lead to an array of health problems, such as anemia.
  • Slowed Brain Function – Despite only weighing three or so pounds, the brain consumes up to one-fifth of your body’s calories. Dieting, fasting, starvation, and/or erratic eating, however, deprives the brain of the energy it needs to properly function and concentrate.
  • Gastroparesis, or, slowed digestion – Food restriction and vomiting can both interfere with a person’s normal stomach emptying and the digestion of nutrients. This can lead to:
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Stomach pain and bloating
    • Blood sugar fluctuations
    • Blocked intestines from solid masses of undigested food
    • Bacterial infections
    • Feeling full quickly, after eating only small amounts of food
  • Decreased Hormone Levels – When we eat fat and cholesterol, our body uses them to create hormones. When we limit fats and calories in our diets, levels of sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone) can fall. Thyroid hormone levels can also decrease. These can cause a young woman to stop getting her period, but can also lead to severe consequences such as bone loss.
  • Hypothermia – According to the National Eating Disorders Association, eating disorders can cause a person’s body temperature to drop. Without enough energy to fuel its metabolic fire, the body may drop into a state of hypothermia.
  • Deterioration of Esophagus and Teeth – With a purging eating disorder, such as bulimia, excessive vomiting can wear down a person’s teeth enamel, as well as their esophagus, due to the acidity. A ruptured esophagus is a serious side effect of eating disorders involving purging.

Mind: Psychological Effects of Eating Disorders

Disordered eating is a complex, clinically-significant mental health condition that affects more than 20 million women and 10 million men across the United States. In addition to their physical effects, eating disorders are often characterized by psychological troubles, such as distorted thoughts, obsessive behaviors, low self-esteem, self-harm, anxiety, depression, social isolation, and a risk for suicide.

Like drug addiction, an eating disorder is not just a phase, trend, or lifestyle choice. Eating disorders are real, life-threatening, biologically-influenced medical illnesses, confirms the National Institute of Mental Health. While the unhealthy eating habits may start voluntarily, certain, maladaptive eating patterns begin take on a life of their own and can be difficult to control. As a result, eating disorders typically require psychotherapy, nutritional counseling, and other specialized, evidence-based treatments.

Many people do not recognize eating disorders as mental health conditions, and therefore do not always recognize the psychological impact that eating disorders can have. Eating disorders often occur together with other psychiatric illnesses, such as clinical depression, anxiety and personality disorders, and substance abuse.

Let’s discuss that last point for a moment. Eating disorders can lead a person towards substance use, and may also give way to addiction. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse cites that individuals with an eating disorder are up to five times more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than the general population. There are multiple reasons for this:

  • Certain drugs support weight loss by suppressing appetite – Alcohol, cocaine, and amphetamines can suppress a person’s appetite, making it easier for them to abstain from eating and to maintain weight loss. These drugs may trick a user into feeling satiated.
  • Self-medication for psychological distress or depression – When a person is suffering an eating disorder, he or she may also be battling co-occurring disorders like depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. In efforts to calm their psychological distress, the person may turn to drugs to self-medicate and “feel better,” even if only temporary. This starts the addiction cycle.

We’ve talked before about the connection between substance use and eating disorders. As mental health issues, both types of disorders stem from the same areas of the brain – our reward centers. You see, the brain’s reward centers are stimulated by certain pleasure-producing behaviors, such as being praised or complimented, eating delicious food, exercising, or falling in love.

The problem is, the parts of the brain dedicated to pleasure can also be stimulated by artificial means, such as drugs and alcohol, and through disordered eating behaviors – both of which produce “feel-good” neurotransmitters in certain individuals. The behaviors, while temporary, become habit-forming. To feel happy or to find relief, a person will continue those negative behaviors to feel the same pleasurable effects (e.g. getting high, feeling thin, binge eating).

According to Eating Disorder Hope, “Those who struggle with an addiction, whether it is in the form of alcoholism, drug abuse, or an eating disorder such as bulimia, may have a personality type that is prone to impulsivity, extremes, and high anxiety/stress and may need more stimulation in order to feel well.  But relief created by stimulation from food, drugs, or alcohol is brief and only creates greater risk for dependency and addiction-forming habits.” As a result, a person with an eating disorder and a substance use disorder requires very specialized, integrated, dual diagnosis care.

Recovery is possible for people battling eating disorders. If you or a loved one is battling an eating disorder, especially in co-occurrence with a substance use issue, do not hesitate to get professional help. You deserve a treatment facility that understands the behavioral, emotional, and physical implications of eating disorders today. The right treatment can help your loved one stop harmful behaviors, stay at a healthy weight, learn good nutritional habits, develop a balanced relationship with food, overcome her negative thoughts, and learn to accept her body fully.

Turnbridge is a young women’s rehabilitation center specializing in substance use, eating disorder, and dual diagnosis treatment. Learn about the eating disorder treatment program at Turnbridge by calling 877-581-1793 or visiting us online.