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The Physical Consequences of Anorexia We Rarely Talk About

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Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

The symptoms and side effects of anorexia are often well documented and accessible — it only takes a quick google search to find an extensive list of the unpleasant and life-altering effects of starvation. In the depths of my eating disorder (ED), I would often read these lists, mentally ticking off each side effect I had – seeing this as some sort of sick achievement. But now that I’m nearly a year into recovery, I’ve noticed the aftermath is rarely spoken about. Despite my physical appearance looking objectively “healthy” now, after years of damage and deprivation, my body is still suffering.

While I didn’t expect everything to return to “normal,” I had no idea just how much of a toll anorexia would take on my body. Before I developed an eating disorder, I was a happy, healthy 12-year-old. I had just started my period, was about to enter the delightful stages of puberty and thankfully had no health issues. Nearly eight years later, I’m about to turn 20, and it is a very different story. Although not every individual who struggles with anorexia experiences the same physical repercussions, I thought it was important to shed light on the “less talked about” consequences of eating disorders to both raise awareness and show others they aren’t alone.

While struggling with anorexia, I was always told my heart rate was too low. I was frequently admitted to the emergency room with sinus bradycardia and low blood pressure, but being the stoic “indestructible” teenager I thought I was, I dismissed the poor stats and assumed the doctors were being dramatic. It is now somewhat ironic that my heart rate has gone the other way. I have since been diagnosed with sinus tachycardia; my left ventricular valve is damaged due to starvation and excessive caffeine intake. I have to take beta blockers to maintain a steady pulse. My blood pressure is erratic, going from an extremely low diastolic state to postural jumping as I stand up – leaving me with palpations and dizziness. 

In the last few months, I have also experienced significant breathing difficulties which the doctors first assumed were caused by anxiety. Yet when this breathlessness and tightness of chest continued, I knew something was medically wrong. It was eventually established to be a combination of factors – a small pneumothorax which had occurred spontaneously, a pinched nerve due to bone weakness and a slipped cervical disc that presses on my C4 nerve which is connected to my diaphragm. I’m currently awaiting physiotherapy which will hopefully alleviate some of this pressure and help my breathing return to normal. 

Osteoporosis is much more frequently talked about. Doctors would often mention it during my medical checkups, but I shrugged it off, viewing it more as a scare tactic than an actual possibility. My first bone dexa scan showed severe and deteriorating osteoporosis in both my lumbar spine and left femur. At age 14, I had the bones of an 82-year-old. My second dexa scan two years later showed further deterioration, and I was told this was irreversible. Since then, I have had horrendous joint and neck pain, leaving me unable to exert myself or lift anything heavy. I recently had an MRI scan of my neck due to this weakness and I’m awaiting results.            

Some people with anorexia might lose their period as their body focuses on the most important functions — because it can’t possibly carry another life if it is struggling to stay alive. I became ill at such a young age that I only ever had one or two cycles before they stopped completely, and I haven’t had a period since. My hormone levels are out of whack, my vitamin D levels are non-existent and I’ve been told I may never be fertile again. As a 12-year-old, having children seemed too far in the future to think about. Now, as I’m about to enter my 20s, the prospect of never being able to conceive is sad and something I deeply regret.

Perhaps something that wouldn’t necessarily be associated with anorexia is gallstones. They can occur due to many reasons, but one reason can be a drastic change in weight. This might be cause by crash dieting, “yoyo” weight changes or a restrictive eating disorder. At the time, I was completely unaware that this was a cause of gallstones, assuming people only got them if they were overweight or ate fatty foods. After a horrific biliary colic attack last year and believing I was having a heart attack, I was told I would most likely need my gallbladder out in the near future. Gallbladder attacks can flare up after any meal and at any time, causing agonizing pain for up to eight hours. I’ve also experienced complications when a stone got stuck, causing my liver to struggle as my liver function tests (LFT) skyrocketed, leaving me jaundiced and very sick.

Another thing I’ve struggled with is digestive issues as my body adjusts to having adequate nutrition again. As expected, I experienced stomach cramps, nausea, bloating and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) all within the first few months of recovery. Yet, these didn’t go away once I reached a healthy weight — if anything, they got worse. I have to be mindful about my food choices so I don’t trigger an IBS episode. I completely underestimated how long it would take my body to heal and repair itself.

Lastly, many people who struggle with eating disorders might experience a weakened immune system. When you’re underweight, your body often becomes susceptible to just about everything. I am bound to get any cold or virus going around. Even now, I will become ill about once every few months, and it will take me a considerable amount of time to recover. I’m particularly prone to ear, nose and throat (ENT) problems, with tonsillitis being a frequent occurrence. Despite being a healthy weight, my body still struggles as it continues to repair the damage done.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Thinkstock photo via AnastasiaRasstrigina

Originally published: September 5, 2017
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