What Are the Consequences of Untreated Anorexia Nervosa?

The restriction of caloric and nutritional intake caused by anorexia nervosa can have dangerous consequences is left untreated – even to the point of death. Without enough “fuel,” the body’s organs, from the brain to the kidneys to the skin. As a result, anorexia nervosa causes more fatalities than any other kind of mental health disorder.

The positive news is that eating disorder treatment centers and the ED recovery community provide effective and compassionate programs to halt and even reverse many of the physical and mental health effects. By treating each client as an individual, and organizing a treatment plan that takes their specific treatment needs into account, the ravages of anorexia nervosa can be stopped. During their experience at a treatment facility, clients can build coping skills that provide them the tools needed to remain resilient every step of the way.

The first step in recovery is persuading the individual with the disorder to understand there is a problem, and that they need to get help. Loved ones can use this guide to help outline some of the potential risks to mental health and physical consequences of anorexia nervosa, and hopefully make it clear that without treatment, these symptoms can occur:

Physical Consequences of Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is defined partially by severe weight loss and inability to gain weight, but its effects can be dangerous even before noticeable weight loss occurs (and in atypical cases, significant weight loss may never come). The physical health symptoms not only decrease the client’s overall sense of wellness but also put them at risk of life-threatening complications. Following are some of the health risks posed by anorexia nervosa:


With all the stress and medical complications associated with anorexia nervosa, headaches, and other aches and pains are hardly surprising. Dealing with chronic pain is hard for everyone, but since AN also reduces the immune system, it can be even harder to recover from. Chronic pain also inadvertently leads to painkiller abuse and addiction.

Heart Damage

A fast resting heart rate is a classic warning sign of anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders. Over time, rapid heartbeat causes great stress on the heart, even at a young age. A disrupted or rapid heartbeat can also lead to poor circulation and a feeling of being cold all the time.

Dehydration and Electrolyte Imbalance

Although people with AN may drink large amounts of water to offset hunger pains, the lack of a balanced diet can throw off the body’s hydration and electrolyte balance, leading to:

  • Excessive thirst
  • Headache
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Arrhythmia
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Confusion
  • Strokes

Dehydration in the long term can cause severe electrolyte imbalances that can affect the health of the heart, kidneys, and brain. If it is allowed to continue for too long, electrolyte imbalances, including low sodium, potassium, and magnesium, can require hospitalization to resolve the issue and restore the client’s health.

Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies

The body’s organs, muscles, and tissues need a regular input of a variety of vitamins and other nutrients to work properly. Anorexia nervosa treatment started early, is often needed to avoid the physical consequences associated with continued nutrient deficiencies. A lack of vitamin D, for example, can appear within weeks if foods like fish, mushrooms, and peas aren’t eaten. Some people with anorexia nervosa will abuse vitamin supplements to try to maintain health without eating enough, but the long term results are usually the same – loss of bone mass and a higher risk of fractures as a result of osteoporosis.

Low Blood Pressure

After a long enough period with inadequate nutrition, blood pressure numbers tend to start to decline to dangerous levels.Without the fuel the heart needs to function dehydration can also cause low blood pressure to develop. Low blood pressure can cause:

  • Lightheadedness
  • Blurry vision
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Fainting

If blood pressure drops too low, it is possible to go into traumatic shock. This necessitates an ER visit and intensive medical care following the event.

Hormonal Imbalances

Without the input of various nutrients, the glands which produce essential hormones cease to function, wreaking havoc on body processes and the mental state as well.Hormonal deficiencies and imbalances can result in emotional changes as well as a wide range of physical risks, such as stunted growth, changes in menstruation, thyroid issues, and more.


In severe cases of malnutrition brought about by anorexia nervosa, a soft, fine layer of hair called lanugo begins to develop as the body tries to maintain its required temperature. Fetuses in the womb and some newborn infants have this kind of body hair as well, but if it occurs after 6 months of age, it’s a clear indicator of long-term starvation.People with anorexia nervosa are frequently noted as feeling cold all the time, another sign of insufficient fuel to keep the body going.

Deterioration of Muscle Mass

With fewer and fewer calories takin in as untreated AN continues, the necessary energy to maintain or grow muscle mass becomes less and less available. In essence, the body will begin to eat itself, with muscle mass being converted into energy that food should provide. This muscle wasting can cause people to feel extremely fatigued – many long-term anorexia nervosa sufferers report being fatigued from climbing a single flight of stairs.Muscle deterioration also has a profound effect on the heart, worsening some of the symptoms mentioned above.

Kidney Damage

Kidney failure is extremely common in people with anorexia nervosa. While kidney infections and eventual failure are serious problems, they can be corrected if the person is put on a restorative eating regime designed by a nutritionist. Thus, care at anorexia treatment centers can help reverse this problem before full kidney failure occurs. If left untreated, dialysis or even a transplant may become necessary.

Loss of Bone Density

Early-onset osteoporosis, with the density and strength of a person’s bones deteriorating, is directly related to the lack of calcium and iron intake. Osteoporosis and other start bone diseases cause the bones to grow brittle, which increases their risk of fracture considerably, as well as causing spinal issues and body weakness.

Psychological Consequences of Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is listed on the DSM-V as an officially recognized mental health disorder, but it can cause psychological distress in other ways, including the onset of co-occurring disorders. Most eating disorder treatment programs focus on talk therapy and behavioral retraining to counteract the psychological risks that come with AN, such as:

Distorted Self-Image and Body Dysmorphia

Virtually every case of anorexia nervosa includes a distorted sense of self-image, usually centering around the sense that the person is overweight (despite proof to the contrary). This may manifest as an inability to see themselves accurately in photographs and mirrors. Body dysmorphia, a persistent sense of being dissatisfied with one’s body, is also quite common, and in combination with a sense of perfectionism, can lead a person to take drastic steps like self-starvation to correct the “issue.” Anorexia nervosa treatment professionals can employ behavioral therapies like CBT to retrain the brain and identify these kinds of thoughts as disordered – a major milestone for recovery.

Emotional Dysregulation

Emotional dysregulation may trigger an eating disorder, or it may be caused by one. In either case, the inability to properly regulate emotions affects almost everyone with eating disorders. Stressors such as trauma or loss can lead to wild mood swings and lashing out, or total withdrawal and flat affect. Even thinking about a stressful event can trigger a chaotic cloud of emotions. Because of the nutritional and hormonal imbalances brought about by AN, these emotional outbursts can become even more difficult to control. Regulating emotion in therapy is one of the major foci of individual talk therapy, requiring mindfulness training and other coping skills. People can learn about these tools, and how to use them effectively while working toward anorexia recovery.

Depression and Anxiety

A dual diagnosis is a situation when two or more mental health disorders are present at the same time. The rate of incidence of both depression and anxiety are much higher in people with anorexia nervosa than they are in the general population.The negative feelings of hopelessness (in depression) or panic (in anxiety) can act as triggers for disordered eating behaviors. Thusly a good eating disorder treatment program will identify these dual diagnoses and treat them accordingly. If ignored, depression or anxiety disorders can lead to roadblocks in treatment or relapses after being discharged from the residential facility.

Guilt, Shame, and Self-Isolation

Many people with anorexia nervosa feel great shame and guilt about their disordered eating, and they may withdraw from their social circle as a result of these feelings. Eating disorders also tend to be self-perpetuating – people suffering from AN will go to great lengths to hide the disorder from the people close to them, and they may begin to isolate themselves to facilitate this more easily. Without close interactions, only their own (distorted) perceptions remain in play, which exacerbates the disordered thought patterns. Anorexia treatment centers help clients rebuild their social networks to overcome this difficulty.

Receiving Individualized Anorexia Nervosa Treatment

All of the mental and physical health effects caused by anorexia seem overwhelming and impossible to overcome when someone is in the throes of the disorder. But getting help is literally a matter of life and death – conditions such as osteoporosis remain for life once they develop and other results such as heart failure can lead to death.

When searching out an anorexia nervosa treatment center for yourself or a loved one, it’s important to find one that individualizes each treatment plan. Compensating for co-occurring disorders like depression or substance abuse, as well as being able to provide medical and nutritional care appropriate to the client’s needs, make the difference between the disordered self and the recovered self.

Anorexia nervosa doesn’t go away without a fight – but it’s a fight that’s worth it. If you or a loved one is dealing with AN, don’t wait – reach out for help today.