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How Eating Disorders Affect the Mind and Body and How Anorexia Treatment Can Help

Without anorexia nervosa treatment, the constant restriction of food and other disordered habits can take a toll on the mind and body. All the tissues in the brain and body start to suffer the effects of malnutrition, as they are unable to get the nutrients they need to survive. As a result, eating disorders can have life-threatening consequences.

Individuals with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or any other eating disorders can acquire help at a residential eating disorder treatment center to halt and even reverse many of the physical and mental health effects. The treatment center staff will create individualized care plans that help each client become and remain recovered, even through the toughest of times. During their time there, clients can build coping skills that provide them the tools needed to remain resilient every step of the way.

Clients and their families can learn about the importance of anorexia nervosa treatment by exploring the health repercussions that could arise without it. They can use this guide to see the impact on the mind and body from eating disorders and learn how to acquire help at the right treatment center.

Impact on the Mind from Eating Disorders

Eating disorders tend to affect the mind first, though physical health effects soon follow. The impact on the brain can cause lasting changes that complicate anorexia recovery, but eating disorder centers are here to help. By becoming recovered from anorexia nervosa or other eating disorders, it is possible to eliminate the following issues, and many others, to restore mental wellbeing.

Disordered Thought Patterns

Everyone experiences disordered thought patterns from time to time. But with eating disorders, these thoughts come on very often and so strongly they cannot be ignored or redirected without an enormous amount of effort. While in anorexia nervosa treatment, people learn how to effectively use mindfulness to acknowledge these thoughts. With this acknowledgment, it is then possible to replace the disordered thought patterns with positive ones.

Distorted Self Perceptions

Many people with eating disorders experience a distorted sense of self. For example, they are often unable to see themselves accurately in photographs and mirrors. They may also have a hard time evaluating how they think and feel at any given time. A poor sense of self can result in difficulties breaking down disordered thoughts and replacing them with accurate statements. Anorexia treatment professionals can provide the guidance and insights clients need to look past their perceptions and see the truth.

Emotional Dysregulation

Although the causative factors vary, an inability to properly regulate emotions affects almost everyone with eating disorders. When faced with the slightest stressors, they may experience emotions far outside what is reasonable for the situation. Even thinking about a stressful event can trigger a chaotic cloud of emotions. Emotional dysregulation often results in outbursts that can harm social connections and cause increased shame or embarrassment. Regulating emotions requires mindfulness and a large toolbox full of helpful coping skills. People can learn about these tools, and how to use them effectively while working toward anorexia recovery.

Depression and Anxiety

With malnutrition and a reduction of social support, eating disorders greatly increase the risk of the development of depression and anxiety. In many cases, these conditions can also trigger the start of disordered eating behaviors as a way to cope. Therefore, it can be difficult to know which condition came first, but there is no doubt these co-occurring medical problems compound each other. Clients need treatment for both eating disorders and all co-occurring mental health problems to become fully recovered. Treating all conditions ensures clients can build a solid foundation on which to become and remain recovered.

Difficulties Concentrating

As people with eating disorders restrict their food intake, the brain fails to receive an adequate amount of nutrients. This often causes difficulties in concentrating that can make it hard to perform well at work or school.  As their performance tanks, stress levels may rise, resulting in an increased reliance on maladaptive coping mechanisms, including disordered eating behaviors. Care at eating disorder treatment centers can help people get back on the right track and avoid damaging their career or education.

Guilt and Isolation

Engaging in disordered eating behaviors often leaves people feeling guilty and ashamed. They may withdraw from their social circle as a result of these feelings. Their isolation also gives them a way to conceal their habits and avoid confrontation as well. As isolation worsens, they do not have any outside perceptions or insights to consider. Anorexia treatment centers help clients rebuild their social networks to overcome this difficulty.

Urge to Engage in Dysfunctional Behaviors

With disordered thoughts often comes an urge to engage in dysfunctional behaviors that initially may feel soothing. Within a short time, however, these behaviors cause increased difficulties and stressors that make life even harder. Only by replacing these disordered behaviors with healthy coping skills can people effectively work on becoming recovered.

As eating disorders take a toll on the mind, symptoms tend to increase. Physical health complications also increase in tandem, resulting in a sharp decline in well being until these individuals seek anorexia nervosa treatment.

Eating Disorders’ Effects on the Body

Eating disorders can have a negative effect on physical health long before weight rises or falls out of a healthy range. The physical health symptoms not only decrease the client’s overall sense of wellness but also put them at risk of life-threatening complications. Here are some of the effects of eating disorders on the body.


Signs of dehydration tend to appear very quickly after people begin engaging in disordered eating habits. The most common signs include:

  • Excessive thirst
  • Headache
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Confusion

Without resolving the dehydration, it is possible to experience severe electrolyte imbalances that can affect the health of the heart. Kidney damage and failure can also occur if the dehydration continues for an extended period of time. If it is allowed to continue for too long, hospitalization may be required to resolve the issue and restore the client’s health.

Electrolyte Imbalances

Within a short period of time, low food and water intake levels can cause problems by throwing off the balance of electrolytes. The main electrolytes used by the body include sodium, potassium and magnesium. These substances are all necessary to keep the heart and other internal organs in good health. Even the muscles cannot work properly when electrolytes are not present in the right concentrations.

Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies

Without an adequate intake of nutrients, vitamin and mineral deficiencies quickly develop. People need to quickly start anorexia nervosa treatment to avoid the physical consequences associated with continued nutrient deficiencies. A lack of vitamin D, for example, arises fairly quickly after beginning to engage in disordered eating habits. Continuing on without this nutrient can result in loss of bone mass and a higher risk of fractures as a result of osteoporosis.


With all the stress and medical complications that come with eating disorders, it is no surprise headaches often arise. These headaches leave people searching for helpful coping skills they can use to ride out the pain. If the individual does not know truly adaptive coping skills, they may rely on disordered behaviors that only serve to make the head pain worse.

Fast Heart Rate

A fast resting heart rate is a classic warning sign of anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders. This problem arises as the heart struggles to function due to electrolyte imbalances and a lack of nutrients. Without looking into anorexia treatment options and acquiring care, the heart muscle could experience lasting damage. A fast heart rate not only damages the heart but also worsens feelings of stress and anxiety.

Low Blood Pressure

By restricting their food intake, people also inadvertently leave the heart without any fuel. Blood pressure numbers tend to start to decline, eventually to dangerous levels, without the fuel the heart needs to function. Dehydration can also cause low blood pressure to develop. Symptoms associated with this change in heart function include:

  • Lightheadedness
  • Blurry vision
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Fainting

If blood pressure drops too low, it is possible to go into shock. When this occurs, shock can cause the client to have a weak pulse and shallow breathing, necessitating a visit to the emergency room.  

Hormonal Imbalances

Eating disorders ranging from anorexia nervosa to binge eating disorder all end up causing hormonal imbalances over time. This occurs as the disordered behaviors result in weight fluctuations that eliminate or build up fat stores. As a part of its primary role in the body, the fat tissues release hormones, but at an altered rate reflecting the fat store status. The absence or increase in hormones can affect the reproductive system, gastric system and many other parts of the body.

Poor Temperature Regulation

As weight fluctuates, people with eating disorders often start to develop an inability to regulate their inner temperatures. This occurs as malnutrition reduces fuel to the organs, muscles and other tissues throughout the body. In response, the body starts to reduce its metabolic processes as a way to compensate for the lack of nutrients. The reduction helps to reduce the number of calories burned while keeping the vital organs working somewhat properly.  


A soft, fine layer of hair called lanugo begins to develop in a desperate bid to retain warmth when faced with malnutrition. Lanugo is the same type of hair that covers newborn babies to keep them warm in the womb. In adult humans, this layer is less effective in retaining heat, leaving people with anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders still feeling cold.

Muscle Wasting

With continued disordered eating behaviors, the lack of nutrients eventually results in muscle wasting. As the body attempts to regulate its system without fuel, it will start to breakdown its own muscle tissues. This muscle wasting can cause people to feel extremely fatigued with very little physical activity. As the heart is also a muscle, it is at risk of wasting away as this complication worsens. Therefore, it is very important to find anorexia treatment options at the first sign of an eating disorder.

Kidney Damage

Continued dehydration and malnutrition can also cause damage to the kidneys. The signs of kidney failure mimic those of dehydration and infection, making it easy to miss until later stages. Care at anorexia treatment centers can help reverse this problem before full kidney failure occurs. If people with eating disorders wait too long, doctors may not be able to save the kidneys, resulting in the need for dialysis and transplants.

Loss of Bone Mass

The risk of early-onset osteoporosis is high in people with eating disorders due to the effects of malnutrition. Without the right level of nutrients, bones cannot continually renew and restore their inner structures, staying strong for life. Instead, they start to grow brittle, which increase their risk of fracture considerably.

How to Halt and Reverse the Damage with Anorexia Nervosa Treatment

All of the mental and physical health effects caused by eating disorders can be halted or reversed, at least to some extent, with anorexia nervosa treatment. Conditions such as osteoporosis remain for life once they develop, but it is possible to slow their progression by working toward anorexia recovery.

The treatment program focuses on restoring healthy eating habits and thought patterns to restore the health of the body and mind. The circulation of vitamins and minerals, along with adequate calories, helps tremendously in jump starting the anorexia recovery process. From there, it is a matter of building confidence and life skills to fully cope with all that each day has to offer.

Clients can reach out to our team at Monte Nido for help by calling 888-228-1253. We will provide them with the guidance and support needed to take control of their health and become recovered from eating disorders.






Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.