The body needs sufficient nutrients to function properly. Maintaining healthy amounts of vitamins and minerals can increase energy levels and promote cognitive functioning. However, failing to receive enough nutrients can be detrimental to the brain.

Anorexia is a mental health condition that involves compulsively restricting food intake. Because of a restricted diet, many people with anorexia experience cognitive problems. In extreme cases, anorexia can cause brain damage.

Research has shown that starvation caused by anorexia can lead to brain damage. A 2007 study published in the McGill Journal of Medicine examined the effects of anorexia in a 17-year-old girl.

The study’s authors stated that severe weight loss can deteriorate both white and gray matter in the brain. They also explained that while white matter typically returns to healthy levels upon weight restoration, loss of gray matter can persist. A separate study, by Stanford University, found that the loss of gray matter can bring about depression, schizophrenia and addiction.

A 2010 study by Yale University analyzed the effects of anorexia on the brain. Researchers compared the brain matter of people with anorexia and those without the disorder. The study showed that anorexia decreased brain volume. Individuals with prolonged anorexia had the most significant reductions in brain volume among all study participants.

The authors of the Yale study were unsure if the shrinkage of the brain affects cognitive functioning. However, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke states that brain atrophy can result in several health conditions, including:

  • Dementia: Creates problems with memory, abstract thinking, learning, organizing and planning
  • Aphasias: Involves problems speaking and understanding language
  • Seizures: Characterized by convulsions and sometimes a loss of consciousness

In addition to brain damage, anorexia can lead to multiorgan failure, muscle atrophy and skeletal problems. In extreme cases, anorexia can cause death. It has the highest mortality rates among all eating disorders.

Sidiropoulos, Michael. “Anorexia nervosa: The physiological consequences of starvation and the need for primary prevention efforts.” Mcgill J Med, January 2007. Accessed February 19, 2019.

Goldman, Bruce. “Different mental disorders linked to same brain-matter loss, study finds.” Stanford Medicine News Center, February 4, 2015. Accessed February 19, 2019.

Bryner, Jeanna. “Brain Shrinkage in Anorexia Is Reversible.” Live Science, May 26, 2010. Accessed February 19, 2019.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “Cerebral Atrophy Information Page.” June 6, 2018. Accessed February 19, 2019.