With so much emphasis on the annual holiday weight gain, it’s easy to forget that overeating and obesity are not the only weight problems that can impact your heart health. Eating disorders can be just as damaging to your heart health as obesity.
Although eating disorders can affect persons of all ages and demographics, it is more common among young women. According to the National Mental Health Association, more than 90% of all persons with an eating disorder are young women between the ages of 12 and 25 years old. The damage to your heart and overall health caused by an eating disorder can be devastating so early diagnosis and treatment are key to recovery.
The three most common eating disorders and their characteristics are:
• Anorexia nervosa – excessive exercise, calorie counting, avoiding food and meal, eating only small quantities, weighing food, more common in women than men, fear of weight gain;
• Bulimia nervosa – characterized by binge/purge cycle, vomiting after meals, using laxatives to cleanse body of food after eating, using water pills, overeating at meals, more common in women than men, fear of weight gain; and
• Binge eating disorder - frequent compulsive overeating even when not hungry, often eats alone, no purging involved, eating quickly, equally common in both men and women.
Each of the three eating disorders are equally hard on the cardiovascular system and may cause severe damage to heart health. Untreated, the results of an eating disorder can be deadly and lead to a cardiac event and death. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in persons suffering from Anorexia. Eating disorders damage the heart in several ways:
• Change in heart rhythm. Eating disorders may cause a change in the natural rhythm of your heart causing you to develop bradycardia. Bradycardia is occurs when the heart rate drops below 60 beats per minute. A normal resting heart rate, depending on your age, is between 60 and 100 beats per minute. Anorexics have a very slow heart rate and low blood pressure which may lead to the development of bradycardia. When the heart beat slows, your blood pressure drops as well. As a result, the flow of oxygen rich blood diminishes and your heart literally starves for lack of oxygen;
• Use of purge drugs. Consistent use of drugs used by Bulimics to purge the body of food may increase your risk of heart failure. This includes drugs used to induce vomiting (syrup of Ipecac), urination (diuretics or water pills) or bowel movements (laxatives). The use of purge drugs, combined with bradycardia is a particularly deadly combination if a person is both Anorexic and Bulimic; and
• Electrolyte imbalance. The combination of starvation and dehydration leads to an electrolyte imbalance which causes heart failure, kidney failure and brain damage. The dehydration and starvation suffered by persons with Anorexia and Bulimia leave the body unable to properly process minerals such as calcium and potassium. Without these essential minerals in proper balance, the electrical current that maintains the heart in a normal rhythm pattern is broken. The result is an irregular heartbeat, heart failure and possible death.
Regardless of whether you are overweight, or underweight due to an eating disorder, it’s important that you understand how your weight may affect your heart health. Engage your medical professional early to put a plan in place to optimize your good heart health for the future.
Until next time, here’s wishing you a healthy heart.
Eating disorders - Complications of Anorexia, University of Maryland Medical Center, 22 Jan 2009, http://www.umm.edu/patiented/articles/how_serious_anorexia_nervosa_000049_5.htm
Health Consequences of Eating Disorders, National Eating Disorders Association, http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/p.asp?WebPage_ID=286&Profile_ID=41143
Eating Disorders, National Mental Health Information Center,
(Disclaimer: I am not a physician and nothing in this article should be construed as giving medical advice. As with any medical decision, please consult your physician.)