Impact of Electrolyte Imbalances In People With Eating Disorders

Electrolyte imbalances are a relatively common occurrence in people suffering from long-term eating disorders, especially eating disorders associated with some form of self-induced purging. In this article, we’ll examine the relationship between eating habits and electrolyte levels and assess the impact of electrolyte imbalances in people with eating disorders.

What Are Electrolytes?

Electrolytes are consumable minerals that assist in regulating a range of key physical functions in the body, including fluid levels, blood pressure, blood acidity, and muscle contractions. When it comes to maintaining your body’s core functions, the six most important electrolytes are sodium, phosphate, potassium, calcium, chloride, and bicarbonate.

In most cases, drinking regular tap water and eating a balanced diet is enough to fulfill all of your daily electrolyte intake requirements. However, if you are in a state of dehydration or you’re preparing for sustained physical exertion, it might be a good idea to boost your electrolyte levels with an electrolyte-enhanced sports drink.

How Can Eating Disorders Lead to an Electrolyte Imbalance?

The main culprits for electrolyte imbalances in people with eating disorders are dehydration and food restriction. When someone severely restricts their food intake, it makes it very difficult to naturally replace any lost electrolytes. Another major cause of imbalanced electrolyte levels in people with eating disorders is dehydration and fluid loss. This is because the most common methods of purging – namely, self-induced vomiting, diuretics, and laxatives – typically result in severe fluid and electrolyte losses.

Side Effects of Imbalanced Electrolyte Levels

Because electrolytes have such an important role in maintaining and performing basic physical functions, it’s imperative that lost electrolytes are replenished on a daily basis.

If a person’s electrolyte levels drop too low, they can experience a range of dangerous side effects, including:

  • Heightened irritability
  • Excessive sweating
  • General confusion
  • More headaches or migraines
  • Numbness and tingling in the extremities
  • Heartbeat irregularities
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Fatigue and lethargy
  • Tremors or seizures
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Muscle and abdominal cramping

Electrolytes and Refeeding Syndrome

Refeeding syndrome is a potentially fatal condition that can affect people who are recovering from an eating disorder. As the name suggests, the most common trigger for refeeding syndrome is refeeding, a period where someone is slowly reintroduced to regular food and nutrients following extreme caloric restriction. If refeeding syndrome occurs, the body’s metabolism may respond disproportionately to the amount of food being consumed, leading to a life-threatening drop in electrolyte concentrations in the bloodstream.

Sources: Gaudiani Clinic, Walden Eating Disorders, Healthline

Photo: Pexels

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