Pulmonary Complications of Eating Disorders: A Literature Review

Journal of Eating Disorders
By Allison Nitsch, MD, FACP, CEDS Philip S. Mehler, MD, FACP, FAED, CEDS

Research Asset


The medical complications of eating disorders (EDs) have been described in the literature; however, the pulmonary system has historically been described as relatively spared from the ravages of eating disorders and thus neglected in the literature. Here we review the pulmonary complications that have been described in the literature, including the effects of starvation on the lungs of nutritionally deprived animals and patients with anorexia nervosa. There is clear evidence of weakness of respiratory muscles with starvation in both groups. However, there is discordance in the literature as to whether starvation results in “nutritional emphysema,” and if so, by what mechanism and at what degree of malnutrition it develops. We also explore the growing concern for the risk of non-tuberculosis mycobacterium infection as well as risk for pneumomediastinum and pneumothorax in patients with restrictive EDs. From the limited literature, it is clear the lungs, in fact, are not spared and that further research is needed to fully understand the full extent of pulmonary complications instigated by EDs.

Written by

Allison Nitsch, MD, FACP, CEDS

Dr. Allison Nitsch obtained her Bachelors degree in Chemical Engineering from The University of Texas at Austin. She then matriculated to Texas A&M Health Science Center where she completed her…
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.

Center of Excellence Logo