Eating disorder habits throw the body’s delicate balance out of order, affecting systems in the body, specifically the endocrine system. When hormones are not in balance, it can lead to problems – including weight gain, additional stress, and infertility.
Effects on Metabolism
Metabolism refers to the set of chemical reactions which happens within the body to allow us to grow, maintain energy levels, and respond to the environment around us. Several hormones are involved in regulating the body’s metabolism, many of which are affected by an eating disorder. These hormonal changes are a response to the body struggling for nutrients and trying to save energy.
When an eating disorder begins in adolescence, it can alter the hormones involved in puberty and growth. Puberty may be delayed and bones may fail to grow properly, leading to stunted growth and osteoporosis later in life.
Eating disorders can also lead to low levels of hypothyroidism, or thyroid hormones, and people will often feel cold or complain of dry skin.
Effects on Fertility and Pregnancy
Disordered eating habits can lead to changes in reproductive hormones, such as leptin, that are responsible for maintaining regular periods, sex drive, healthy hearts, and strong bones. As a result, some women will have irregular periods, some will stop having them altogether, and some may suffer infertility.
Pregnancy can also be affected. In the cases where pregnancy does occur despite disordered eating, hormones can affect the mother and baby.
Low leptin levels have been linked to an increased risk of cesarean section, postnatal depression, miscarriage, complicated delivery, and premature birth.
Effects on Stress Hormones
Cortisol is a hormone that helps the body to respond to stress. It does this by increasing blood sugar levels, slowing down non-essential processes like digestion, and suppressing the immune system.
People with eating disorders often have high levels of cortisol due to the stress of their condition. This can lead to problems such as anxiety, trouble sleeping, and gastrointestinal issues.
High cortisol levels can also affect the body’s ability to heal and can make it harder to fight off infection. In severe cases, high cortisol levels can lead to adrenal insufficiency, which can be life-threatening.
Eating Disorders and Obesity
In binge-eating disorder, compulsive overeating usually leads to obesity. Obesity, in turn, causes numerous medical complications such as high cholesterol levels, diabetes, heart disease, gallstones, gout, and certain types of cancer. Obesity also causes an increase in hormone levels that encourages the build-up of body fat, thus making it even more difficult to manage some of these chronic conditions that can negatively impact your health.
Eating disorders and unhealthy eating habits can have serious psychological and physical consequences. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, we encourage you to reach out for help. Receiving the guidelines and assistance you or your loved one needs to find recovery can be life-changing.