Eating Disorders And GI Problems: Understanding The Connections

By: GI Alliance


An eating disorder is a medical condition in which an individual practices eating habits that are harmful to their physical and mental health. Among the most commonly diagnosed types are binge eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and pica. Each condition is characterized by its own, unique set of behaviors and symptoms. However, they are all connected in their ability to cause serious consequences in a patient’s health, including dangerous complications for the digestive system. How Anorexia Affects the Digestive System Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder in which a patient severely limits the amount of food they consume out of fear of being or becoming overweight. Symptoms of anorexia include a rapid and continuous loss of weight, dryness of skin and nails, muscle weakness, fainting or dizziness, and thinning hair among others. Over time, the lack of essential nutrients normally obtained through food can lead to malnutrition and digestive complications.

Because an individual with anorexia is eating at an extremely restricted level, the muscles throughout the digestive system can begin to weaken and atrophy. In turn, a condition called gastroparesis develops in which the process of emptying the stomach becomes significantly slower or even stops altogether. As a result, patients may begin to experience GI symptoms such as bloating, abdominal pain and pressure, constipation, and vomiting.

How Binging and Purging Behaviors Affect the Digestive System Binging and purging are phases of bulimia nervosa, an eating disorder in which an individual participates in cyclical eating habits of overeating followed by purging through self-induced vomiting or the use of laxatives. In those who purge through vomiting, complications can include tearing within in the esophagus and muscle weakness in the esophagus and sphincter. This can lead to problems such as trouble swallowing and chronic acid reflux. Over time, the stomach acids which cause reflux can also lead to erosion of the mucous membranes of the esophagus, eventually resulting in a condition called Barrett’s esophagus. Patients with Barrett’s are also at an increased risk of developing esophageal cancer. In cases where a patient relies on laxatives as a way to purge, complications can include dehydration, kidney failure and overstimulation of the bowel to the point of complete shutdown. As a result, patients may need extreme medical intervention, including dialysis, complete or partial colon resection, or use of a colostomy bag. What is Pica, and How Does it Affect the GI Tract? Pica is an eating disorder with which many are unfamiliar. It is a condition hallmarked by the compulsive need a person experiences to eat foreign substances that are not meant for human consumption. Cases of pica have reported consumption of materials including dirt, paint, glass, cloth, and household cleaning products. How pica affects the body and GI tract depends on what is being consumed. Indigestible objects can cause blockages; sharp objects can lead to cuts or tears within the digestive tract, and other items may introduce toxic substances, parasites, or bacteria into the body. Successfully treating any eating disorder includes a team of specialists, including general practitioners, psychiatrists, and gastroenterologists. Together, these physicians can assess the current state of a patient’s health, as well as develop a thorough treatment plan to help overcome the eating disorder and any physical complications that it may have produced. If you or a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, do not delay medical attention. Contact your physician today, and schedule an appointment with a GI Alliance physician to evaluate the current state of your gastrointestinal health.