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Eating disorders - Anorexia nervosa - Bulimia nervosa - Binge eating disorder
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Eating disorders - Anorexia nervosa - Bulimia nervosa - Binge eating disorder


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People with anorexia have a greater variety of health complications and a greater risk of death than do people with bulimia. However, both eating disorders can result in serious health problems.


The most serious health risk from anorexia is death, either because of the effects of severe weight loss or by suicide. Other problems include:

  • Heart disease. Anorexia can cause irregular heart rhythms and result in smaller heart muscles. Heart disease is a common cause of death for people with anorexia.

  • Hormonal changes. Changes in reproductive hormones and in thyroid hormones can cause absence of menstruation (amenorrhea), infertility, bone loss and retarded growth.

  • Imbalance of minerals and electrolytes. Your body needs adequate levels of minerals, particularly calcium and potassium, in order to maintain the electric currents that keep your heart beating. Disruption of your body's levels of fluids and minerals creates an electrolyte imbalance. Unless restored, this imbalance can be life-threatening.

  • Nerve damage. Anorexia may cause brain and nerve damage, seizures and loss of feeling.

  • Blood disorders. Lack of nutrition can reduce your body's levels of vitamin B-12, causing anemia and affecting your body's ability to produce enough red blood cells.

  • Digestive problems. Anorexia can cause constipation and bloating.


The related health problems aren't as severe for bulimia, partly because most people with bulimia maintain a normal weight. Complications may include:

  • Teeth and gum problems. The presence of gastric acid in your mouth from regular vomiting may cause damage to your teeth and gums.

  • Low potassium levels. The purging process tends to make your body dehydrated and to lower the level of potassium in your blood. This can cause weakness and irregular heart rhythms.

  • Digestive problems. Purging may cause irritation of the walls of your esophagus and rectum. Repeated purging may also cause constipation.

  • Behavioral and emotional problems. Bulimia may lead to depression and can be associated with a variety of impulsive behaviors such as sexual promiscuity, stealing, alcohol abuse and drug abuse.

  • Abuse of medications. The variety of over-the-counter drugs you may use during purge cycles may cause a drug dependency. These include laxatives, diuretics, appetite suppressants and ipecac, a drug that induces vomiting.

Binge eating disorder

This eating disorder can cause a variety of complications, including:

  • High blood pressure

  • Elevated cholesterol levels

  • Heart disease

  • Type 2 diabetes

  • Gallbladder disease


Severe cases of anorexia may require immediate hospitalization in order to rehydrate your body and restore your electrolyte balance.

For anorexia, your doctor or a nutritionist will want to set you on a course to gradually gain weight. To treat either anorexia or bulimia, your doctor likely will recommend nutrition education, psychotherapy and family counseling. Your doctor may also prescribe medications to reduce bingeing, vomiting and preoccupation with food or to treat the depression and anxiety that may be associated with eating disorders.

  • Nutrition education. Your doctor or nutritionist may discuss with you the establishment of a routine for meals and the importance of a healthy diet.

  • Psychotherapy. Your therapist may suggest cognitive behavior therapy. This approach is based on a belief that emotional problems stem from distorted attitudes and ways of thinking. Your therapist helps you to revise negative or erroneous perceptions.

  • Family counseling. This counseling can help address feelings of guilt and anxiety within a family that may have led to a child's eating disorder.

  • Medications. Doctors sometimes prescribe antidepressant medications to treat eating disorders. Commonly, doctors prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as fluoxetine (Prozac, Sarafem), sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), citalopram (Celexa), escitalopram (Lexapro) and fluvoxamine (Luvox). Other antidepressant medications may include venlafaxine (Effexor) and tricyclic antidepressants such as imipramine (Tofranil) and desipramine (Norpramin). If you're experiencing depression and anxiety, which commonly accompany eating disorders, antidepressant medications will benefit these conditions as well.


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