How Eating Disorders Affect the Heart

Thursday, May 19  •  

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The devastating conditions of living with an eating disorder can wreak havoc on the body, and one part that truly feels that impact is the heart.

Researchers found that of every 1,000 people who have bulimia, about 10 will develop heart disease and around three will die each year. Compared with every 1,000 people who don’t have bulimia, around one person will develop heart disease every year. In a similar study, an analysis of 23 studies involving more than 900 people who had Anorexia Nervosa found that 80% of them suffered from heart problems, compared with people who didn’t have anorexia.

Although the outward effects of eating disorders are often the most obvious, what happens internally can sometimes be the most devastating.

Malnutrition

Our bodies need fuel to function, and that fuel comes in the form of food broken into glucose and circulated throughout the bloodstream. Every cell relies on this supply of glucose. If we limit the supply by not eating enough, as is often the case in clients with restrictive eating disorders like anorexia, our bodies notice.

The “engine” of the cardiac system and the body itself, the heart, responds. The heart controls the blood pressure and the perfusion of blood to all parts of the body. When it needs to conserve energy, it decreases blood flow to “less necessary” parts of the body—the extremities.

If the starvation persists long enough, the heart itself can slow down. Clients may experience bradycardia or a slow heart rate that drops to dangerously low beats per minute. In turn, a bradycardic heart rate affects blood pressure. Blood pressure levels can drop very low, often resulting in dizziness upon standing, walking, or exerting any energy.

Dehydration

In addition to contributing to malnutrition, eating disorders affect the hydration part of our bloodstream. Just as our bodies are reliant on normal glucose levels, they also depend on adequate hydration levels. Hydration is necessary to move blood throughout the body. Dehydration decreases blood pressure and ultimately harms every organ of our body. The heart and kidneys are particularly sensitive to low fluid intake.

Electrolyte Changes

When we do not consume enough calories and nutrients, our bodies cannot function properly. This includes the process of electrolyte regulation. Electrolytes are minerals in our blood that carry electrical impulses throughout the body and enable cells to communicate with each other.

The most common electrolyte imbalance eating disorders cause is hypokalemia or low potassium levels. This happens when the eating disorder causes vomiting or diarrheal episodes. The loss of fluids and electrolytes can cause irregular heartbeats, which may lead to cardiac arrhythmia or sudden death.

If you are concerned that you, a loved one, or your patient may have an eating disorder, we encourage you to reach out to Avalon Hills. Find help for yourself and others online or call 435-938-6060 for more information.

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