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The physical effects of anorexia

Updated: Apr 18

Anorexia (Anorexia Nervosa) has very serious physical effects and complications, as well as a devastating impact on psychological wellbeing.


If you need support for anorexia, please reach out to our team for help.


The physical effects of anorexia are both short and long-term. There are immediate physical effects as the body struggles to function without the nutrients and fuel that it needs. The sufferer is also at risk of developing long-term and potentially life-threatening health problems, particularly if the condition is untreated for many years.


Schoen Clinic has over 37 years' experience providing leading mental health treatments for various conditions including eating disorders. As industry leaders in the field of clinical research, our treatments include exceptional care for our patients and their families.


young girl sad, looking in mirror unhappy, anorexia

How many people require eating disorder treatment in the UK?


Record numbers of young people require eating disorder treatment. According to figures from the NHS, more young people than ever before are receiving treatment for eating disorders.


With a record demand for services, about 10,000 children and teenagers began treatment between April and December 2021, up nearly two-thirds from before the pandemic and a quarter more than during the same period last year.

If you or your loved one are currently battling an eating disorder, we're here to help. Get in touch with one of our specialist eating disorder hospitals today.


Who is at risk of developing anorexia?

Girls and women are more likely to show signs of and develop anorexia − but eating disorders are becoming more prevalent in boys and men, likely due to societal pressures.


Although anorexia is uncommon in people over 40, people of any age can show signs of anorexia. Due to all the changes that their bodies undergo during puberty, teenagers may be more vulnerable. Additionally, they could experience more peer pressure and be more sensitive to criticism or even innocuous remarks about their weight or body type.


LGBTQ+ youth are also at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder. According to research by the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) more than half of LGBTQ+ youth between the ages of 13-24 have been diagnosed with an eating disorder at some point in their life.


What are the physical signs of anorexia nervosa?


Food deprivation has a range of physical effects as the body struggles to cope with insufficient nutrients and calories. Like other eating disorders, anorexia may control your life and make recovery very hard. With therapy, you may rediscover your identity, adopt healthy eating practises, and undo some of the side effects of anorexia.


Because what is considered a low body weight varies from person to person (and some people may not seem exceedingly thin), it may be challenging to identify the signs and symptoms. Diagnosing anorexia can also be challenging as many people as possible with anorexia frequently conceal their health issues, eating patterns and thinness.


What are the physical effects of anorexia?


People suffering from an eating disorder may have several undesirable side effects. Anorexia sufferers can suffer some or all of the following:

  • Constipation

  • Dizzy spells and faintness

  • Abdominal pains

  • Muscle weakness

  • Poor circulation resulting in feeling constantly cold

  • Dry, yellow coloured skin

  • Early morning waking

  • Bloating

  • People with anorexia often develop long, fine downy hair on face and body

  • Disrupted menstrual cycles or no periods at all


Is there a link between anorexia and health problems such as osteoporosis?


Osteoporosis − or ‘soft bones’ − is a disease which results in the density of the bones reducing. This leaves sufferers prone to painful fractures, particularly in the spine and hip, plus persistent and disabling pain and loss of height.


People with eating disorders are at risk of developing osteoporosis because their bodies are deprived of the vital nutrients that bones need to grow and remain strong. Calcium is the most important nutrient for the bones.


The risk of osteoporosis is particularly serious for people with eating disorders. This is because dangerous eating patterns commonly develop from the age of 13 and throughout the teens when the bones are still growing and reaching peak strength.


What are the effects of anorexia on fertility?


Infertility is a serious and common side effect of anorexia for people who have a uterus. Anorexia is a known cause of amenorrhea, which is where menstruation stops for three or more months. A dramatic reduction in body fat halts the production of the hormone, oestrogen, which is necessary to stimulate ovulation.


If the menstrual cycles and ovulation are suppressed for a very long time, this can affect fertility. A recent study found one in five women at an IVF clinic were experiencing problems due to an eating disorder. Another study on infertility and eating disorders found that among infertile women with amenorrhea or oligomenorrhea 58% had eating disorders.


The stopping of periods can be permanent if a sufferer has had untreated anorexia for a long time. However, the good news is that, for most in this situation, menstruation will start again once they begin to gain weight. Approximately 80 per cent of such people who recover from anorexia will regain their ability to conceive.


If someone with anorexia does conceive, they face a high risk of miscarriage and having a low-birth-weight baby. Anyone who is struggling with an eating disorder should delay pregnancy until a full recovery is made.


What are the effects of anorexia on the heart?


Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all forms of mental illness, with rates of between 10 and 15 per cent. A significant proportion of these deaths are due to heart failure as a result of long term, severe anorexia.


When anorexia has become this severe, the heart is often damaged. As there is not enough body fat to protect the heart, anaemia can develop. This can weaken the blood and leads to poor circulation. As a result, the heart cannot pump and circulate blood effectively.


Severe anorexia also results in the loss of muscle mass, including heart muscle. Consequently, the muscles of the heart can physically weaken, leading to a drop in blood pressure and pulse. This can then contribute to slower breathing rates.


Studies have shown that many people with anorexia who are admitted to hospital have low heart rates. Common heart problems include arrhythmias (fast, slow or irregular heartbeat), bradycardia (slow heartbeat) and hypotension (low blood pressure).

As such, the effects of anorexia on the heart can be devastating.


Do the side effect of anorexia include neurological (brain) problems?


People with severe anorexia may suffer from nerve damage that affects the brain and other parts of the body. This can lead to things like:

  • Seizures

  • Confused thinking

  • Extreme irritability

  • Numbness or odd nerve sensations in the hands or feet (peripheral neuropathy)


Brain scans show that parts of the brain can undergo structural changes and abnormal activity during anorexic states. Some of these changes return to normal after weight gain, but there is evidence that some damage may be permanent.


Is anaemia a side effect of anorexia?


Yes, anaemia is a common side effect of anorexia and starvation. In one study, up to 39 per cent of anorexic participants had anaemia. A particularly serious blood problem is pernicious anaemia, which can be caused by severely low levels of vitamin B12. If anorexia becomes extreme, the bone marrow dramatically reduces its production of blood cells − a life-threatening condition called pancytopenia.


When to see a doctor?


As anorexia is an extremely serious illness with some of the highest mortality rates, it's important to see a doctor as soon as possible. If you think that you might be suffering from an eating disorder, it's important to seek help as soon as possible.


The good news is that recovery is possible. Our multidisciplinary team here at the Schoen Clinic are here to help you return to healthier eating habits. In most cases, we can help you make a full recovery from the physical side effects of anorexia. 


For fast access to specialist treatment, get in touch with our compassionate team today.


Anorexia health problems FAQs

Anorexia frequently asked questions



Anorexia is an eating disorder that involves unhealthy weight loss. People with anorexia often struggle to maintain a healthy weight due to a difficult relationship with food.


Many people suffering from anorexia will excessively restrict their calorie intake, exercise compulsively or use laxatives or make themselves sick to try to keep their weight low.


Although anorexia is typically seen in those with low body weights, people of any size can suffer from the condition.People with anorexia will often have a distorted image of their bodies. For example, it's common for those suffering from anorexia to think they are fat, even if they are underweight.


What are the causes of anorexia?


It is unknown what exactly causes anorexia. However, it is assumed that anorexia is caused by a range of biological, physiological and environmental factors.

Although there is no definitive cause of anorexia, you might be more likely to suffer from anorexia if:

  • You or a family member have a history of eating disorders

  • People have commented on your eating habits, weight or body shape

  • You feel under constant pressure to be thin

  • You have low self-esteem or anxiety

  • You are a perfectionist or have an obsessive personality


What are the warning signs of anorexia?


As is the case with many mental health problems, no two people experience anorexia in the same way. However, some of the warning signs of anorexia include:

  • Losing substantial amounts of weight

  • An obsession with weight, food, calories, fat and/or dieting

  • Viewing themselves as fat, despite losing weight or being underweight

  • A lack of appetite or apparent denial of hunger

  • Missing out on social occasions involving food or refusing to eat in public

  • Excessive exercise or an obsession with burning calories

  • Withdrawal

  • Physical signs of anorexia such as gastrointestinal problems or the loss of menstruation

  • Body dysmorphia

If you're worried that you or someone you love might be showing signs of anorexia, it's important to get help as soon as possible.


What can I do to prevent anorexia?


There's no guaranteed way to prevent a person from developing anorexia. Primary care doctors (paediatricians, family GPs, and internists) may be well-positioned to spot anorexia's early warning signs and stop the condition from progressing to a more serious stage. For instance, at normal medical check-ups, they might inquire about dietary habits and contentment with looks.


Consider talking to a family member or acquaintance about these concerns if you see that they have poor self-esteem, strict eating habits or dissatisfaction with their looks. Even though you might not be able to stop an eating issue from forming, you can discuss better habits or available treatments.


How much do anorexic people weigh?


An adult's normal BMI ranges from 18.5 to 25. Anorexic adults have a BMI of less than 17.5 pounds. Using specific age-related BMI tables, your normal weight is determined if you are under the age of 18.


Can I have anorexia and be normal weight?


Researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine and the University of California-San Francisco have published a new study which demonstrates that teens and young adults with atypical anorexia nervosa can have normal body weights while yet being severely unwell.


As a result, these patients can be under-recognised and under-treated. As these people can be suffering from anorexia health problems just as much as underweight sufferers, it's important to seek treatment − even if your body weight is considered 'normal'.


How skinny is too skinny?

An individual is termed "too thin" from a clinical standpoint if they are underweight. A person is considered underweight if their Body Mass Index (BMI) is lower than 18.5.


What are the different treatment options for anorexia?


If you're suffering from the effects of anorexia, we're here to help. Here at Schoen Clinic, our multidisciplinary team has extensive experience in helping people who are suffering from eating disorders to make full a recovery.


Our highly successful anorexia treatment method is tailored to each individual − as everyone will experience an eating disorder differently. Although everyone is different, our specialised treatment programme includes:

  • Psychotherapy, occupational therapy and psychology

  • Specialist mealtime support and dietetics

  • One-to-one therapy

  • Group therapy

  • Family therapy


Get in touch with our caring team at Schoen Clinic today if you need anorexia support for yourself or a loved one. Our anorexia specialists in London, Birmingham and York offer highly specialised treatments and welcome children, teens and adults.

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