It is extremely important to listen to your heart, especially for individuals struggling with an eating disorder. An eating disorder can lead to health concerns in multiple areas of a person’s life, but the heart is the one place that will truly feel the impact.
Since eating disorders and heart problems are linked, the destructive conditions they cause can leave severe damage to the body. Research shows that there is a high risk of death connected to cardiac causes in people with an eating disorder. Getting immediate treatment can reduce strain on the heart and allow it to heal.
The heart is a muscle that needs fuel to stay strong and function efficiently. When the body is starved of fuel, it shrinks and weakens. You can see this happening to people who are struggling with an eating disorder on the outside of their body, but you cannot see what it does to the organs on the inside. Eating disorders can damage every part of the body, particularly the heart and cardiovascular system. A very weakened heart could result in serious heart problems.
Heart Problems Caused by Eating Disorders
- Cardiomyopathy (sick heart). It is caused by malnourishment, nutritional deficiencies, and the chronic use of ipecac syrup which has been taken off the market. In severe cases, cardiomyopathy can lead to heart failure or be a risk factor for heart arrhythmia.
- Myocardial infarction (heart attack). It can happen when a blockage in one of the blood vessels prevents the flow of blood supply to the heart.
- It is the most common rhythm abnormality seen in people with anorexia nervosa. This is when the heart rate beats slower than normal, about 60 beats a minute.
- Mitral valves prolapse. Happens when one or both mitral valve leaflets are stretched more than usual, causing them to bulge backward (prolapse) each time the heart contracts to pump blood. This makes it harder for the heart to work properly.
- Congestive heart failure (CHF). Occurs when the heart fails to pump blood as efficiently as it should. Overtime, the effort it takes to move the blood can weaken the heart leading to a buildup of excess fluid around the heart. The behavior of bulimia nervosa can increase the risk of CHF, but with proper treatment, it can potentially improve.
- Ventricular arrhythmia. It is abnormal heartbeats in the lower chambers of the heart called ventricles. When the heart beats too fast, it prevents oxygen-rich blood from circulating to the brain and throughout the body which may result in cardiac arrest.
- Sudden cardiac death can happen when there are low levels of potassium in the blood serum, also called hypokalemia. This is consistent with restrictive purging associated with bulimia.
Cardiovascular complications in eating disorders are common. Since eating disorders involve unhealthy behaviors related to food and exercise, overtime this can damage the body and heart.
The more the body and brain are subject to malnourishment, the more the organs will suffer extreme impairment. An eating disorder can also affect the liver enzyme levels that are directly linked to heart dysfunction.
Most Common Eating Disorders
- Anorexia nervosa: generally develops during adolescence or young adulthood. Individuals who suffer from anorexia usually view themself as overweight, even if they are not, so have an intense fear of gaining weight. Since their perception of weight is distorted, they tend to use extreme efforts to control their weight.
- Bulimia nervosa: tends to develop during adolescence and early adulthood. Individuals living with bulimia frequently eat unusually large amounts of food in a specific amount of time, and then they purge to compensate for the calories they’ve consumed. They also tend to use laxatives, diuretics, enemas, and excessive exercise to control their weight.
- Binge eating disorder: the most common chronic illness among adolescents. It typically develops then or during early adulthood but can surface later in life as well. This disorder is similar to bulimia, where individuals feel a lack of control during their binge eating. Also, they may not make nutritious food choices during the binges, which can increase the risk of heart complications and type 2 diabetes.
- Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED): when someone has the signs of eating disorders, but they do not meet the full criteria for a diagnosis of these disorders. One example of OSFED is orthorexia.
All eating disorders should be treated as serious and life-threatening. When a person is diagnosed with an eating disorder, they lose weight and muscle mass, both skeletal and cardiac types. If they lose cardiac muscle mass, they can develop a mitral valve prolapse which can lead to congestive heart failure.
Extreme undernourishment and heart complications should be assessed for cardiac abnormalities early on in heart care treatment. As an eating disorder progresses, the red flags are easier to spot.
Warning Signs of Eating Disorders
- Making excuses to skip meals or situations involving food.
- Obsessively counting calories and weighing their food portions.
- Eating smaller portions of low-calorie foods while excluding entire categories such as carbs and fat.
- Eating foods in a specific order or rearranging the food on the plate.
- Excessively cutting or chewing their food.
- Finding lots of empty food packages and wrappers hidden.
- Consistent unexplained disappearance of large amounts of food.
- Hoarding and hiding high-calorie junk foods.
- Running water after eating to hide the sound of purging.
- Disappearing soon after a meal or making constant trips to the bathroom.
- Intense exercising, especially after eating or periods of fasting.
- Frequent complaints of sore throat or stomach problems.
- Taking laxatives, enemas, or diuretics.
As strong as the heart is, it is also very vulnerable to being deprived of the calories and nutrients it needs. If calories are severely restricted, then the body will start to make changes to conserve energy in an effort to stay alive.
In addition, muscles wither, bones lose density, and the skin and hair can dry out. Like other organs and muscles, the heart will also undergo significant changes. Eating disorders and heart problems can lead to dizziness, fainting, and low blood pressure.
As research indicates, early detection and assessment of heart abnormalities in individuals suffering from an eating disorder may prevent future complications of heart failure.
Eating disorders are just one of the many causes that can impact your heart health. To learn more about ways to care for your heart, contact CT Cardio to schedule an appointment with Dr. Corwin A. Thomas. Dr. Thomas is a well-known cardiology specialist in Lafayette, LA, who has decades of experience in cardiovascular problems.
Dr. Thomas will perform an evaluation of structural changes in your heart and determine the risk of increased mortality from cardiac causes. You can also check out the various heart care services we provide that will benefit you and your family.
The heart is resilient and improving the quality of life for their patients is one of our missions. Learn to live a healthy life and stay young at heart with CT Cardio.
Sidenote: If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder and you are not sure where to start, you can contact the NEDA helpline https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support/contact-helpline for more support, resources, and treatment options. Or call their hotline 800-931-2237 to speak to someone. Making the decision to start recovery for an eating disorder may feel scary and overwhelming, so seeking help from healthcare professionals and support groups can make it easier.