You can probably infer many physical consequences a person may suffer when they intentionally starve themselves. Things like:
A person with anorexia will likely lose weight detrimentally, and a lack of nutrients will show in her hair, skin, and nails. In addition, they will experience headaches, stomach pain, bone density issues, and heart problems.
But what you may not be aware of are the devastating mental health consequences of anorexia. So that’s what we’re going to talk about today.
Which Comes First: The Eating Disorder or Mental Health Issues?
We should note right up front that it’s normal for a person with an eating disorder to already struggle with mental health issues. We refer to this as a co-occurring disorder. Perhaps you or your loved one dealt with depression for years before severely restricting calorie intake.
It’s also common for a person with anorexia to develop new mental health issues. So you or your loved one may find that after a long period without adequate food, you begin to develop severe depression.
GoodRX.com points out that these correlations make sense, regardless of which comes first because both eating disorders and mental health disorders have roots for their behaviors in the brain. (1)
Without knowing which came first, let’s look at what one study found regarding how eating disorders and mental health disorders interact. Of those hospitalized for an eating disorder:
- 94% had depression
- 56% had an anxiety disorder
- 25% had PTSD
- Many others struggled with personality disorders, OCD and ADHD (1)
Let’s take a closer look at what happens when a person first struggles with an eating disorder and then develops mental health problems.
How Does Anorexia Cause Mental Health Problems?
When we think about anorexia on its most basic level, it is basically the act of nearly starving oneself. We aren’t meant to live this way—and we aren’t capable of functioning without adequate food for months or years at a time.
The National Eating Disorders Collaboration explains it this way: A sustained reduction of food causes a decrease in the rate at which the body burns energy. The typical brain requires a ton of energy to work properly. When the functional rate of the body goes down, the brain operates on a deficit. (2)
It is no wonder, then, that an anorexic brain would struggle to think clearly, regulate emotions properly, and make decisions with confidence.
Studies show that starvation’s direct mental health consequences include: “depression, anxiety, irritability, increased mood fluctuations, intense and negative emotional reactions, decreased enthusiasm, reduced motivation, impaired concentration, problem-solving and comprehension, increased rigidity, obsessional thinking, and reduced alertness.” (2)
In short, anorexia causes all kinds of damage to the one organ responsible for our mental health: the brain. (3)
If you or someone you love struggles with anorexia and would like to get help for your mental health issues, find the location nearest you.