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How Eating Disorders Can Affect Immune Function Later In Life

How Eating Disorders Can Affect Immune Function Later In Life

Eating disorders are mental illnesses characterized by an unhealthy preoccupation with food, body weight or shape, or exercise. In some cases, eating disorders can also center around an unhealthy relationship with food. People with eating disorders tend to severely restrict their food intake, sometimes also exercising excessively due to an intense fear of gaining any weight. 

There are several types of eating disorders, all of which come with their own characterizations: 

  • Anorexia nervosa:Self-starvation, leading to a person being severely underweight.
  • Bulimia nervosa:Alternating between excessive dieting and binge eating followed by vomiting, laxative misuse, fasting, or compulsive exercise. 
  • Binge eating disorder:Binge eating large quantities of food in short periods followed by excessive shame, guilt, and distress surrounding the food consumption.
  • Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder:Not wanting to eat or having very little interest in eating.

Eating disorders can be highly detrimental to a person's health while they suffer from the condition and even in the years following recovery. One such area greatly affected by eating disorders is the immune system – but how do eating disorders cause issues with immunity? Read on to learn how eating disorders can affect immune function later in life.


Image by Olenko Kotyk on Unsplash: Do eating disorders affect the immune system?  


How does malnutrition affect the immune system? 

Malnutrition occurs when the body doesn't get all the nutrients it needs to function correctly. Undernutrition and poor nutrition are also terms used to describe this condition. When a person suffers from an eating disorder, they do not get enough food or they purge the food they do eat. When this happens, the body fails to get the nutrients it needs. 

The immune system relies heavily on nutrition to function properly. Not getting enough can lead to a breakdown in how it produces new immune cells and how existing immune cells work. According to research, the production of immune cells is severely hindered when there aren't enough nutrients in the body. When those cells become less available, pathogens are up against a smaller army, leaving the immune system weak against invaders. Additionally, the current immune cells within the system don't function as they should. They become weak and cannot fight off the pathogens because they are not at full strength. 

Can anorexia weaken your immune system? 

Anorexia, as mentioned above, develops when a person doesn't eat enough. Because this can lead to malnutrition, anorexia can weaken the immune system's function. 

Another common part of anorexia is overexercising to keep down. Exercise is typically considered healthy and can improve immunity, but like anything else, too much of a good thing can be harmful. If a person overtrains their body, the immune system can become suppressed. That means it will be too sluggish to react when a pathogen invades. This suppression can cause illnesses to last longer or become more severe. 

Overtraining combined with malnutrition damages the immune system twofold. This severe suppression of immunity can take months or even years to correct after recovery. 

How does bulimia affect the immune system? 

Bulimia can also affect the immune system similarly to anorexia. While not eating enough leads to malnutrition and a weakened immune system, overeating can damage immunity in different ways. 

When a person overeats regularly, their immune system becomes activated. This increase in the immune response when there is no pathogen to fight off causes unnecessary inflammation. Inflammation, when not used to ward off disease or illness, damages the body and increases the risk of developing chronic diseases later in life. 

When a person with bulimia cycles through undereating and overeating, they throw their immune system for a loop and it begins to weaken significantly over time. 


Image by Taylor Smith on Unsplash: How does anorexia affect the immune system? 


What are some long-term eating disorder effects? 

Various long-term effects of eating disorders can take years to correct. One of the main issues that arises following an eating disorder is poor mental health. People who suffer from anorexia, bulimia, or any other eating disorder often develop depression or anxiety, which in turn impacts immune health. 

Heart disease is also a dire consequence of eating disorders. It is often considered one of the most common issues that arise in people suffering or recovering from a severe eating disorder. Bone growth is also negatively affected; people who have dealt with eating disorders have increased risk of early bone loss and osteoporosis.

Other long-term health effects of eating disorders include: 

  • Nerve damage that can cause neurological issues 
  • Dangerously low levels of vitamin B12 that take years to build back up again 
  • Digestive system issues due to inconsistent eating habits 
  • Infertility 

Coping with an eating disorder isn't easy. Because it affects many of the body's systems, including the immune system, it can be hard to return to a healthy overall state once you have recovered. While the recovery process may seem difficult, it is necessary to ensure that your health isn't compromised permanently.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorder Association helpline


Featured image by Oleg Ivanov on Unsplash

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