Anorexia Nervosa

Hepatic Complications of Anorexia Nervosa

Digestive Diseases and Sciences
By Philip S. Mehler, MD, FACP, FAED, CEDS


Anorexia nervosa (AN) has the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric illnesses due to the widespread organ dysfunction caused by the underlying severe malnutrition. Starvation causes hepatocyte injury and death leading to a rise in aminotransferases. Malnutrition-induced hepatitis is common among individuals with AN especially as body mass index decreases. Acute liver failure associated with coagulopathy and encephalopathy can rarely occur. Liver enzymes may also less commonly increase as part of the refeeding process due to hepatic steatosis and can be distinguished from starvation hepatitis by the finding of a fatty liver on ultrasonography. Individuals with AN and starvation-induced hepatitis are at increased risk of hypoglycemia due to depleted glycogen stores and impaired gluconeogenesis. Gastroenterology and hepatology consultations are often requested when patients with AN and signs of hepatitis are hospitalized. It should be noted that additional laboratory testing, imaging, or liver biopsy all have low diagnostic yield, are costly, and potentially invasive, therefore, not generally recommended for diagnostic purposes. While the hepatitis of AN can reach severe levels, a supervised increase in caloric intake and a return to a healthy body weight often quickly lead to normalization of elevated aminotransferases caused by starvation.

Written by

Philip S. Mehler, MD, FACP, FAED, CEDS

Dr. Philip S. Mehler began his career at Denver Health more than 35 years ago and was formerly its Chief of Internal Medicine and then Denver Health’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO) until he was promoted…

ACUTE Earns Prestigious Center of Excellence Designation from Anthem
In 2018, the ACUTE Center for Eating Disorders & Severe Malnutrition at Denver Health was honored by Anthem Health as a Center of Excellence for Medical Treatment of Severe and Extreme Eating Disorders. ACUTE is the first medical unit ever to achieve this designation in the field of eating disorders. It comes after a rigorous review process.

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