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What started as me trying to lose a few pounds and “get in better shape” for an upcoming dance competition turned into years of food obsession, yo-yo dieting, diet pills, being tethered to the scale, and periods of binging followed by longer periods of extreme restriction. I spent years chasing an elusive ideal, getting high off of the compliments on my ever-shrinking body, feeling incredibly low when the scale reported that I had put on a pound of two, and allowing my thoughts and conversations to be overrun by my food and exercise habits. 

Before starting my recovery journey, I googled “symptoms of anorexia” and “how do I know if I have an eating disorder?” on numerous occasions. I didn’t really wonder about or even consider the potential long-term effects of having an eating disorder. I learned more about them throughout my recovery, but even recently, I have had questions about whether or not certain mental and physical health challenges are or could be related to my eating disorder. Learning more about some of the potential long term effects of my eating disorder in addition to the impact it was having on my present physical and mental health helped and continues to help me stay committed to recovery.

A note before I continue, though:

Outlining some of the potential long term effects of eating disorders is not to make anyone feel any fear about or shame for struggling with an eating disorder. Rather, this information is to help provide a more holistic view of the effects eating disorders can have on those of us who struggle; understanding the potential long term effects of eating disorders helps connect us to or remind us of the severity of the disorders in the present, as well as the need for access to treatment and support throughout recovery. 

Long-term Effects of Eating Disorders on Physical Health

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The potential long term effects of eating disorders can vary by the specific disorder, but they can take a severe toll on your physical health. Here are some of the long-term physical consequences:

1. Cardiovascular Issues

Eating disorders can lead to heart complications like irregular heartbeats, low blood pressure, and even heart failure. These risks are heightened due to malnutrition for those who struggle with anorexia, electrolyte imbalances for those who struggle with bulimia, and the strain of repeated binging and purging behaviors.

2. Neurological Issues

Research shows that the brain is severely impacted by malnourishment. This research indicates that some who had certain eating disorders ended up “brain starved,” resulting in difficulty focusing or concentrating, identifying emotions, engaging in higher-order thinking, and/or formulating thoughts into words. While these symptoms can improve with nourishment, long-term brain starvation can lead to some of these consequences being more permanent.

3. Bone Health

Malnutrition from an eating disorder can result in bone density loss, which could lead to osteoporosis. This makes bones more fragile and susceptible to fractures,eventually affecting mobility and quality of life.

4. Digestive Problems

Chronic binging, purging, and restrictive eating can cause lasting damage to the digestive system, leading to issues such as chronic constipation,  gastroparesis (delayed emptying of the stomach),gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and severe bloating. This does not mean that every stomach problem that someone who has or had an eating disorder experiences is a result of eating disorder behaviors, but eating disorders can contribute to these types of long term digestive issues.

5. Dental Health

For someone who struggles with bulimia, vomiting can erode tooth enamel, leading to tooth decay, and can cause gum disease.

Long-term Effects of Eating Disorders on Mental Health

The potential long term mental health effects of eating disorders are equally significant. Here are a few:

1. Cognitive Impairment

The impact of malnutrition noted above can result in long term disruptions in your overall cognitive function, affecting concentration, memory, and your ability to make decisions. This may leave you feeling like you are consistently unable to gain mental clarity or perform at your best academically, professionally, or relationally.

2. Other Mental Health Disorders

It’s important to note that eating disorders often coexist with other mood and anxiety disorders, or OCD. Over time, the constant stress and challenge of struggling with one of these alongside an eating disorder can make recovery considerably more challenging.

3. Social Isolation

Some people with eating disorders withdraw socially due to shame, guilt, lack of interest in social connection when engaging in eating disorder behaviors, or fear of judgment. This isolation can damage relationships, contributing to disconnection and loneliness. Then, it can feel challenging or overwhelming to try to reconnect with multiple people with whom you may have more distant or strained relationships.

Worthy of Recovery

Again, exploring some of the potential long term effects of eating disorders is not to instill fear, but rather to affirm that you deserve help, you deserve support, you deserve recovery. Learning about these long term implications of eating disorders on your body, mind, and on your quality of life can be an important reminder that you don’t need to wait until you are “sick enough” to get help and move toward healing. Healing your relationship with food and your body is a gift you give your present and future self, one that opens the door to a life filled with more joy and freedom. Remember, you have nothing to prove to be worthy of recovery.

By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC

All images via Unsplash

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association

Unknown (2017). Eating disorders. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/eating-disorders#part_155057.

    Unknown (2006). Eating disorder statistics. South Carolina Department of Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.state.sc.us/dmh/anorexia/statistics.htm.

    How Can Wildflower Therapy in Philadelphia, PA Help You?

    If you’re looking for someone to come alongside you to help you unpack and approach the the complex set of experiences and emotions that come with having and healing from an eating disorder, our therapists in Pennsylvania are honored to help!  In fact, you can get to know a little bit more about them here and book a free consultation here.

    Other Mental Health Services Provided by Wildflower Therapy, Philadelphia, PA

    Life is a unique and sometimes messy journey for each of us; we all have our own individual battles to fight. As a result of this, our therapists know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to any of life’s challenges and because of that, we offer many unique perspectives and approaches to help meet you where you are with our Philadelphia, PA Therapy services.

    With this in mind, we offer services for eating disorder therapy, services for anxiety, and depression, and have practitioners who specialize in perinatal mental health maternal mental healththerapy for college students and athletes, as well as LGBTQIA+ Affirming Therapy. Accordingly, we have something to offer just about anyone in our Philadelphia, PA office. Reaching out is often the most difficult step you can take to improve your mental health. We look forward to partnering with you on this journey!