Anorexia nervosa is a severe mental health disorder that manifests as an unhealthy obsession with food, weight gain, and body image. It can lead to numerous dangerous physical and psychological effects, including malnutrition, organ damage, and cognitive impairments.
If left untreated, the eating disorder can cause physical complications and permanent damage and may even be life-threatening, so it’s imperative to seek help for this condition as soon as possible. Treatment for anorexia can be highly successful in helping individuals regain their health and well-being and even reverse some long-term effects.
What is Anorexia?
Anorexia nervosa (AN) is a severe and potentially life-threatening mental health disorder. The condition is often characterized by a fear of gaining weight, atypically low body weight, and distorted body image.
People who struggle with this condition tend to severely limit their food intake in order to control their weight. And the condition can manifest in a number of other ways, including through the development of certain eating rituals or behaviors.
Causes of Anorexia Nervosa
Experts don’t know what exactly causes anorexia, but a combination of physiological, environmental, and biological factors likely contribute to someone developing the condition.
People with a family history of certain health conditions, including physical or mental illness, may be at greater risk of experiencing the disorder. Histories of trauma are also often connected to anorexia nervosa.
Those raised in environments where certain body shapes or sizes are emphasized or where a parent or caregiver struggles with their own body image may also be more prone to develop disordered eating habits.
And participants in certain sports or activities, especially those that focus on appearance or body weight, have also been found to be at greater risk for developing AN.
Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa
Anorexia nervosa impacts nearly every aspect of someone’s life, resulting in a number of signs and symptoms that often point to the development of the disorder.
Some behavioral signs of the disorder include:
- Distorted body image
- Fear of gaining weight
- Obsessive exercising or obsessively trying to control calorie intake
- Abnormal eating routines
AN also has a number of physical signs. Some of the most common include:
- Poor nutrition
- Atypically low body weight
- Thinning hair
- Brittle or fragile nails
- Poor general health
And anorexia nervosa also takes an emotional toll. Those who struggle with the condition may show signs of depression, mood swings, low libido, or social anxiety.
Long-Term Effects of Anorexia Nervosa
Anorexia nervosa damages nearly every system in the body, with long-term, permanent damage more likely to develop the longer someone struggles with the illness.
Unfortunately, this type of damage can lead to premature death. AN has the highest death rate of all mental health disorders, with some studies indicating a mortality rate as high as 20%. [1, 2] And the longer someone struggles with anorexia nervosa, the higher the likelihood of them succumbing to the condition.
But the condition can cause many other long-term health complications.
Severe anorexia nervosa has detrimental effects on the heart.
Prolonged malnutrition and significantly low body weight can lead to cardiac muscle atrophy, which can lead to several conditions, including arrhythmia, mitral valve prolapse, and even heart failure.
Hormone and electrolyte levels in the body can also be impacted by a limited diet, which can lead to complications with blood pressure (e.g., abnormally low blood pressure), heart rate, and rhythm.
Anorexia nervosa greatly increases the risk of developing bone complications, including osteoporosis and other bone density issues. These conditions are caused, in part, by hormonal problems related to a severely limited food intake.
Women who experience binging and purging as part of their AN have a greater risk of developing bone damage due to the drop in estrogen caused by their condition. In biological males with anorexia, testosterone levels drop as they lose weight, which can lead to stunted growth and further impact bone health. 
As a person with AN restricts more calories, their body will begin to slow down its digestive processes.
This type of adjustment may feel uncomfortable and result in GI symptoms, including: 
- Abdominal pain
- Stomach ulcers
- Liver disease
For many people, digestive problems decrease as recovery progresses, but for some, problems may persist.
Without proper nutrition, hormone levels become disrupted, which can have ripple effects throughout the body.
The human body needs proper nutrition, including cholesterol and fat, to make hormones. When nutritional needs aren’t met, the body’s stored energy levels decrease, and it responds by reducing hormone production to preserve that energy.
This can result in any number of health complications. Falling levels of sexual and thyroid hormones can potentially lead to osteoporosis over time. An increase in cortisol and other stress hormones, which is also common with AN, helps power common co-occurring mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. And for biological women, imbalanced hormones can also bring on the disruption or loss of the menstrual cycle.
After receiving proper nutrition, many women get their menstrual cycles back. However, the risk of fertility complications is higher for women who have struggled with anorexia nervosa than those who have not. Many women report struggling to conceive after dealing with the condition. 
There’s still much to be learned about how anorexia nervosa affects neurology, but more studies are being conducted on the disorder’s impact on the brain.
So far, research has uncovered potential links to a number of neurological complications, including: [5, 6]
- Disruptions in neurotransmitter behavior, including weakening connection between brain cells
- Structural changes or reductions in parts of the brain
- Disordered thinking
- Disturbance of limbic and cognitive neural circuits, which regulate stress, anxiety, aggression, and more
While these effects can be frightening to reckon with, a growing body of research suggests that much of the damage is reversible after recovery. 
Many who suffer from anorexia nervosa are resistant to getting help at first. But with the proper treatment, it’s possible to achieve lasting recovery.
Whether the person suffering from AN is you or a loved one, it’s important to seek help, even if it feels scary or uncomfortable. The effects of anorexia are varied and severe, so it’s crucial to get help before medical complications appear. Reaching out to your healthcare provider for further guidance is a great way to start.
There are many ways to make taking the first step in getting treatment easier. For some people, bringing a trusted and supportive family member or friend to the first appointment makes the process less intimidating. Another person can also help with asking questions and remembering information since it may feel overwhelming at first.
There is no shame in asking for help, and there’s a wide network of professionals that are qualified to give treatment options. There’s also a large mental health community that can provide support. Remember, if you’re struggling with AN or any eating disorder, there is hope for lasting recovery, no matter how scary taking that first step may be.
- Edakubo, S., Fushimi, K. (2020, January 13). Mortality and risk assessment for anorexia nervosa in acute-care hospitals: a nationwide administrative database analysis. BMC Psychiatry; 20(19).
- The Long Term Health Risks of Anorexia. Center for Discovery Eating Disorder Treatment. Accessed January 2023.
- Gibson, D. (2021, May 26). Gastrointestinal (GI) Issues DUring and After Eating Disorder Treatment. Acute Center for Eating Disorders & Severe Malnutrition. Accessed January 2023.
- Miller, A. (2016, March 31). The Lasting Toll of an Eating Disorder: Fertility Issues. U.S. News. Accessed January 2023.
- Large study reveals stark changes in brain structure for people with anorexia. (2022, June 7). University of Bath. Retrieved January 2023.
- Kaye, W. H., Wagner, A., Fudge, J. L., & Paulus, M. (2011). Neurocircuity of eating disorders. Current topics in behavioral neurosciences; 6:37–57.
- Bryner, J. (2010, May 26). Brain Shrinkage in Anorexia Is Reversible. Live Science. Accessed January 2023.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on March 21, 2023
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com