I shouldn’t say nobody—but unless you or someone close to you has battled anorexia, there are some side effects that aren’t very well known. This is partly because talking openly about eating disorders has been frowned upon for so many years, and partly because the research surrounding the most deadly mental illness is lacking at best. Fortunately, discussing eating disorders is getting a little more mainstream and the research is slowly but surely getting more solid.
Still, myths continue to hug the eating disorder community tightly. When I was diagnosed three years ago, I learned firsthand not only just how horrific the side effects are, but just how uneducated and uninformed some (many, in my experience) in the medical field are about the illness. Unless it was a doctor who specialized in eating disorders, it was like talking to a laymen about anorexia.
An example? One general practitioner told me, “I heard anorexia is caused when a person isn’t happy in their life. Have you tried figuring out why you’re so unhappy?” Such a sweeping statement is potentially damaging on many levels. Of course, some anoretics are unhappy in their life—the same can be said of the general population. In reality, anorexia is a mental illness that isn’t “caused” by any one thing. Research has recently linked it to genetics in some cases, and there’s certainly a common profile just like with many illnesses, but in the end anorexia doesn’t play favorites. It doesn’t care about your gender, age, race, socioeconomic background or anything else, including your happiness quotient.
Every case is different just like every person is different, and not everyone with anorexia is going to exhibit these side effects. However, in my experience (and in my own intensive research), the following side effects are relatively common, yet not widely known by the general population:
- You lose your hair. You might not lose all of it, but anoretics have a tendency to lose a tremendous lot. Personally, I lost about half. When I saw myself in the grainy CCTV cameras at grocery stores, it looked like I had severe male pattern baldness. The fact that I’m very pale with brown hair makes it easier to notice. When you’re starving, your body isn’t getting the nutrition it needs. It will stop sending the limited nutrition it does get to the least important parts of your body, like your hair. (Bonus: Your nails go to hell, too).
- You get lanugo. Lanugo is a type of peach fuzz (kind of like what some women have on their face as they age), but it’s to the extreme. Again, everyone is different, but there are some photographs of anoretics who look nearly like werewolves. Growing this hair is your body’s last attempt to regulate body temperature. When you don’t have enough fat to keep yourself warm, your body does its best to compensate. And yes, it’s a cruel joke that you lose the hair on your head and grow weird hair everywhere else.
- You’re cold all the time. Again, without fat, your body can’t self-regulate. It’s a myth that anoretics wear layer after layer of clothes just because they’re self-conscious and want to hide. That may be part of it in some cases, but the other part is that anoretics are freezing all the time. Strangely, being cold is a sign of pride for many anoretics, especially women, because it’s idiotically considered dainty, frail and femme to be cold when others are wearing tank tops.
- You get insomnia. The body’s number one priority is survival, and when you’re starving yourself that means the top priority is finding food. Your body doesn’t know that even if you found a buffet, you wouldn’t have a bite. As such, your brain keeps you awake whenever possible in case food comes by. The longest stretch I was awake, and not because I was trying, was 36 hours. I was prescribed medication for insomnia, but it did absolutely nothing.
- You get painful bruised feelings when you do eat. Most anoretics will binge at some point, or at least “eat normally.” When this happens, your body is so dehydrated that any food source is going to painfully bloat the body. It’s common to get a serious food baby, but that’s not all—anoretics might not look any different after they binge or eat, but may feel like someone took a baseball bat to their entire body. This water swelling has stretched the skin in such an unnatural (to an anoretic) way that it feels like full-body invisible bruising.
- Anoretics eat. “Starvation” doesn’t mean that a person never eats. It’s impossible to sustain anorexia for more than a few weeks without eating something. Instead, anoretics often restrict to such a severe degree that the body goes into starvation mode and malnutrition. “Not eating” doesn’t really exist.
- Anoretics don’t die of starvation. The majority of anoretics who do die from their illness die of heart failure and sometimes broken bones. First, the heart issue: When the body doesn’t have any nutrition or fat left to sustain itself, it will start to consume muscle. The heart, both muscle and organ, is fair game. Anoretics also lose an incredible amount of bone density, making it very difficult to recover from broken bones and fractures. Just like a broken hip is very dangerous for someone who’s 85, but not nearly as dangerous to a healthy 25-year-old, the anoretic’s bones are like a very elderly person’s.
These are just a few of the side effects I’ve experienced and read about in my own research. Anorexia isn’t pretty in numerous ways. It’s also a very solitary disease that must be managed for life. Eating is at the core of most social gatherings in every culture. When a person is restricting, they push people away partially because eating-centric gatherings are too hard for them and partially because they don’t want to get “caught.” Anoretics have a bevy of excuses why they’re not eating, but it gets very tiring trying to keep up with those excuses.
“Orthorexia,” or an obsession with healthy eating to a dangerous degree, has given anoretics more accepted excuses for not eating. Saying you’re fasting or on a cleanse is encouraged in today’s culture.
Also, I’m of the camp who believes anorexia can’t be cured—but it can certainly be managed. I compare it to alcoholism (although anorexia is a mental illness and alcoholism is an addiction). Still, like an alcoholic, I think an anoretic will always be an anoretic. There will be highs and lows, and even if they never self-restrict again, that doesn’t mean the illness has been cured. It’s simply being managed.
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