What eating disorders do to your body

Eating disorders, often misunderstood and underestimated, are complex conditions that affect not only your eating habits but your overall health and well-being. They affect people from every demographic and involve complex causes and consequences which require professional treatment and support. Sadly, eating disorders are becoming more prevalent, but there are still many people suffering who feel afraid or anxious about seeking treatment. This may be due to perceived stigma, fear of failure or the sheer toll the condition has taken on them, but it puts them at enormous risk of both short and long-term health issues.

This blog aims to shed light on the physical and psychological impacts of eating disorders and how they can leave you trapped in a seemingly endless cycle. We hope to emphasise the importance of early intervention and the effectiveness of professional treatment and encourage anyone who needs help to reach out.

Understanding eating disorders

Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that manifest through unhealthy eating behaviours. These disorders affect sufferers in different ways, but they are usually characterised by an obsessive focus on weight, body shape, food and health.

There are various forms of eating disorders which affect tens of millions of people around the world. Some of the most common eating disorders include:

Anorexia nervosa
A distorted body image and an unwarranted fear of weight gain mark anorexia. Anorexia nervosa symptoms include severe food restriction, a preoccupation with nutritional content, malnutrition due to restricted eating and the resulting health complications.
Bulimia nervosa
Bulimina involves cycles of binge eating followed by purging, usually through vomiting, extreme exercise or the use of laxatives. Bulimia can be very difficult to spot as many sufferers purge in secret, but the health and personal consequences can be incredibly serious.
Binge eating disorder (BED)
BED is characterised by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food, often quickly and to the point of discomfort. Unlike bulimia, binge eating disorder does not involve regular purging behaviours, but individuals often feel a loss of control during these episodes and experience feelings of shame or guilt afterwards.
ARFID (Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder)
ARFID differs as it involves a restrictive intake of food, not driven by body image concerns but due to a disinterest in eating or an aversion to certain textures or tastes of food. It often develops in childhood but can cause major nutritional deficiencies and make everyday life a constant struggle.

The physical consequences of eating disorders

Many eating disorders start out as a response to a psychological issue – such as childhood trauma, depression, anxiety or a reaction to social or media beauty standards – but they can and do have profound physical consequences. These physical health effects can be both acute and long-term and potentially lead to life-threatening conditions.

Nutritional deficiencies

Eating disorders, particularly conditions like anorexia, bulimia and ARFID, can lead to severe nutritional deficiencies. These deficiencies can result in anaemia, low levels of vitamins and minerals and protein-energy malnutrition, all of which can affect organ function, immune response and overall vitality. In severe cases, it can even lead to starvation, requiring immediate medical intervention to prevent death.

Gastrointestinal complications

Disordered eating behaviours, especially in conditions like bulimia, can cause a range of gastrointestinal issues. These include chronic stomach pain, acid reflux and, in severe cases, gastric rupture.

Long-term purging can also lead to irreversible damage to the digestive system and esophagitis (a painful inflammation of the oesophagus which can be painful and cause difficulties in swallowing). In extreme cases, constant exposure to stomach acid through vomiting can cause Barrett’s oesophagus, a condition that greatly increases the risk of oesophagal cancer.

Cardiovascular effects

Malnutrition and electrolyte imbalances, common in many eating disorders, can lead to serious cardiovascular problems. These include irregular heartbeats, heart failure and in the most extreme cases, sudden cardiac death.

Bone health

Poor nutrition, especially a deficiency in calcium and vitamin D, can weaken bones, increasing the risk of osteoporosis and fractures. This is particularly concerning in children and young adults with eating disorders as it can impact their peak bone mass.

Skin and hair

Physical appearance often bears a significant brunt of eating disorders. Depending on the specific nutrient deficiency, symptoms can include dry, yellowish skin, brittle nails and hair loss. These changes are not just cosmetic; they reflect the body’s dire state of malnutrition and poor health.

Chronic medical conditions

Prolonged eating disorders can lead to a number of chronic health issues like heart disease, kidney failure and liver damage. These potentially lethal conditions arise from sustained periods of malnutrition and the body’s struggle to maintain normal function under such stress.

Impact on fertility and reproductive health

In women, eating disorders, particularly anorexia, can disrupt menstrual cycles and lead to fertility issues. Even if pregnancy does occur, there is an increased risk of complications such as miscarriage, premature birth, and low birth weight for the baby.

Eating disorders can also impact reproductive health in men. They can lead to a reduction in testosterone levels and other hormonal changes that affect libido, sexual performance and fertility. Reduced sperm quality and quantity have also been observed in men with severe eating disorders, which can complicate efforts to conceive.

The psychological and emotional impact

The impact of eating disorders extends far beyond physical health, deeply affecting psychological and emotional well-being. As explained above, these disorders are often intertwined with mental health issues, creating a complex web of emotional challenges. Some of the most damaging impacts include:

Mental health struggles

Many individuals with eating disorders experience co-occurring mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The constant preoccupation with food, weight, and body image can exacerbate the intense feelings of anxiety, guilt and shame (often symptoms of these mental disorders) and fuel continued disordered eating as a coping mechanism. Some people may also turn to substances like alcohol or drugs to cope with the mental toll of an eating disorder, leading to a high risk of addiction and the resulting dangers.

Emotional turmoil

Eating disorders can also be incredibly emotionally draining. They often involve feelings of worthlessness, self-hatred and isolation, resulting in secrecy and guilt and a withdrawal from friends and family. The behaviours and attitudes stemming from eating disorders can be confusing and frightening to loved ones, leading to misunderstandings and conflicts. All of this can prevent sufferers from confiding in those closest to them, leaving them to suffer in an ever-worsening state of health.

Cognitive effects

Long-term eating disorders can also affect cognitive functions. This can include difficulties with concentration, memory and decision-making, impacting daily life and productivity and perpetuating physical and mental health issues.

The importance of seeking help

Recognising the need for help and reaching out for professional treatment is crucial in the fight against eating disorders. Early intervention can significantly improve the chances of recovery and reduce the risk of long-term health complications.

At Banbury Lodge, we offer specialised treatment for various eating disorders, which involves a combination of:

Nutritional guidance and education
Nutritional guidance is crucial as it addresses deficiencies and helps teach healthier eating habits. Anorexia nervosa treatment often involves a gradual increase in calorie intake, while ARFID treatment slowly introduces individuals to previously avoided food groups to fill nutritional gaps.
Psychological therapy
We provide a comprehensive programme of different therapies to identify and address the underlying causes of eating disorders. For example, bulimia treatment involves individual therapy to delve deep into past trauma that may have triggered the condition, while group therapy allows individuals to share experiences and coping strategies.

Evidence-based therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy and dialectical behaviour therapy help to illuminate the link between thoughts, emotions and behaviours, enabling people to manage stress and difficult life events without resorting to disordered eating.

Medicinal support
In some cases, medication may also be required to help with the management of co-occurring mental health conditions or symptoms directly related to the eating disorder. For example, antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can help regulate mood and reduce obsessive thoughts related to weight, while medications like topiramate or lisdexamfetamine may be prescribed to help reduce the frequency of binge-eating episodes seen with bulimia and BED.

At Banbury Lodge, this holistic approach aims to address both the physical and emotional aspects of eating disorders, setting strong foundations for long-term recovery. Post-treatment, we provide continuous aftercare to help prevent relapse and ensure everyone gets the support they need to continue their healing journey.

Final thoughts

Eating disorders are serious conditions that affect both the body and the mind, but understanding their impact, recognising their symptoms and seeking professional help are crucial steps in recovery. Banbury Lodge offers comprehensive treatment and support, which has helped many people overcome their eating disorders, so if you are struggling, get in touch with us today.

Ultimately, effective recovery is not just about overcoming disordered eating behaviours; it is about reclaiming a healthy, balanced life and taking the first step towards a brighter future. Remember, the path to recovery starts with one brave decision to seek help, which could be the most important decision you ever make.

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