Impact of eating disorders
Eating disorders are a mental illness that can affect the sufferer in many ways; mentally, physically, and socially. Below are some of the most significant ways a person, and their loved ones, are often affected.
For more information on the impact of a particular eating disorder, go to the about eating disorders section.
Mental health impact
An eating disorder is a mental illness and so it is common to experience anxiety or depression alongside the eating disorder. Others may experience additional conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, self-harm, or suicidal ideation (thoughts).
It is important to know that whilst with the right help and support recovery is very achievable, if left untreated eating disorders can become very serious. In fact, they carry the highest mortality rate of all mental illness, and anorexia has the highest level of risk amongst all eating disorders. Death may result from starvation and the effect on vital organs including the heart, or very sadly due to the person taking their own life.
Whilst this is extremely sobering reading, it is important we don’t shy away from the seriousness of eating disorders. It is why seeking help as early as possible is so crucial – as soon as treatment and support begins, the sooner recovery can be achieved.
For some eating disorders, the physical impact and changes in body shape and weight may be the first noticeable signs of the illness. However, this is not always the case and should never be relied upon as the sole indicator of an eating disorder being present. It is also possible for a person’s weight and shape to remain unaffected by an eating disorder, or they main gain or fluctuate in weight too.
Physical health complications include:
- Heart problems – if calorie intake is severely restricted over time, for example due to anorexia, the body will start to break down its own muscle and tissue to create the fuel it needs to function normally. Since the heart is a muscle, any breakdown of its tissue can result in an increased risk of heart failure.Bulimia may also lead to heart failure due to the loss of electrolytes and minerals during purging. Potassium, which is lost through vomiting, is an essential electrolyte that helps regulate a normal heartbeat and muscle contraction. Other electrolytes such as sodium can also be depleted through vomiting, which may also lead to cardiovascular problems.
- Gastrointestinal issues – digestion can slow (gastroparesis) due to food restriction and/or purging. This can result in several issues including bloating and stomach pain, nausea, blood sugar fluctuations, constipation, diarrhoea, and bowel infections. In the case of binge eating disorder, in severe cases the stomach may rupture which is a life-threatening condition.
- Neurological issues – our brains use around 20% of our total energy intake every single day, including when we are asleep. Neurons in the brain are responsible for transmitting messages from the brain to the nervous and muscular system, and they need lipids (fats) to be able to do this effectively. Think of lipids as their fuel. Severe calorie and food restriction over time will mean the brain does not get the fuel it needs, and this can cause problems such as tingling or numbness in the hands and feet. Other neurological problems include episodes of dizziness or fainting and seizure activity.
An eating disorder affects many areas of a person’s life. There can be social and practical difficulties like feeling unable to socialise with friends or family, especially where food or eating may be a focus like family meals or celebrations. This can increase a sense of isolation and that no one really understands what the sufferer is going through.
Sadly, there can be a sense of stigma and shame attached to having an eating disorder and this may mean the person withdraws from social occasions and their friends and family. While self-isolation can be a result of having an eating disorder, it can also worsen the illness as we know that eating disorders thrive when sufferers are both socially and physically isolated.
There can also be a significant impact on the lives of those that care for or support someone with an eating disorder; parents, partners, siblings, grandparents, colleagues, and friends are all affected too. We hear from many carers and family members who tell us how isolated they feel and often how no one really understands what they are going through. With the focus of health professionals naturally centred on the sufferer, family and friends can feel their needs are forgotten or side-lined.
Despite the potential seriousness of an eating disorder, they are treatable, and you can recover. Read our real stories submitted by people who have recovered – they did it and so can you.
If you feel affected by any of the issues described here, it is important you seek help and support as soon as possible. Talk to your GP or contact us for support and help. We offer a range of support services both for those living with an eating disorder, and their family and friends. Connecting with others going through the same thing, and those that have recovered, can really lessen feelings of isolation and hopelessness.