Hurting Your Heart: Eating Disorders Can Cause Arrhythmia

Eating disorders often do more than just affect a person’s body weight. In extreme cases, disordered eating habits can cause severe malnutrition, potentially leading to emaciation and internal organ problems. Heart issues, such as arrhythmia, are one of the most serious side effects of an eating disorder. Left untreated, arrhythmia can cause fatal complications in an individual with an eating disorder. With one-third of deaths in people with eating disorders being attributed to heart issues, it is imperative that anyone struggling with an eating disorder seek medical assistance as soon as possible.

What Is Arrhythmia?

Cardiac arrhythmia, or heart palpitations, occurs when the electrical activity of the heart becomes abnormal, causing the heart to beat irregularly. There are a number of medical conditions that can cause arrhythmia. Some of these conditions include:

  • Coronary artery disease.
  • Heart valve disorders.
  • Sudden imbalances in electrolyte levels.
  • High blood pressure.

How Does an Eating Disorder Cause Arrhythmia?

Eating disorders are one of the lesser-known causes of heart arrhythmia. Rapid weight loss, restricted calorie intake, over-exercising, and purging behavior will result in strain on the heart, particularly when there are serum electrolyte imbalances. Initially, the heart may begin to beat faster to compensate for a decrease in the size of the individual or due to a loss of muscle mass in the heart. However, this response will quickly exhaust the heart, and eventually, the individual in question will begin to experience bradycardia, a medical term which means a slower-than-expected heart rate.

Due to the onset of bradycardia, the heart will slow down in order to preserve muscle and extend essential physical functions. When an individual begins to experience bradycardia, it is very likely that their heart will undergo arrhythmia. If the underlying cause of the arrhythmia is not addressed, the patient may eventually suffer heart failure.

Treatment Options for Arrhythmia

The most important step in treating arrhythmia in people suffering from disordered eating is to acknowledge and address the underlying eating disorder. Remember, if the individual does not accept that they are unwell, they will never accept that they need treatment.

Thankfully, the heart is an amazingly resilient organ, particularly in young patients. If a person recovering from an eating disorder can cease intense physical activity, slowly adopt an adequate diet, and maintain a healthy weight, there is a high chance of heart arrhythmia cessation.

If you or someone you know is suffering from arrhythmia and/or an eating disorder, please contact a medical professional immediately.

Sources: Emily Program, National Institutes of Health, Rosewood Ranch, Eating Disorders Glossary

Photo: Pixabay

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