Anorexia is a serious disorder that needs to be dealt with early on if possible and very carefully if it is a long-term issue. How a person becomes an anorexic is multi-faceted. Sometimes it is due to the pressure society places on women through the unreal skinny models who don the covers of fashion magazines or the rail thin actresses who look like they’ve missed every other meal. Other reasons include just plain malnutrition or over exercise without enough caloric intake. That last one is an issue I had to deal with personally back in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s.
When I ran competitively, I assummed that being thin was the way to get faster. It was also the era of carbohydrate loading and an aversion to protein. The outcome? When I finished the 1979 NYC Marathon, with a broken knee cap, I weighed 129 pounds. Now if I was 5’2″, that might have been acceptable except I am 6 feet tall. I was anorexic but I didn’t know it.
As I look back on my life at that time and saw pictures of myself I was stunned that I didn’t realize how skinny I was. Remembering what my self image was I knew that I was thin, but not that bad. Years later it hit me, anorexics don’t see themselves as being that thin either and the reason may be a lack of potassium. Now, you must be thinking, ‘wow what a stretch’ to claim that potassium is a possible cause of an inability to properly view ones own body shape, but follow me on this line of thinking.
Two main electrolytes are key to the proper functioning of our nervous system and the way we perceive ourselves, sodium and potassium. Humans are quite good at retaining sodium as it wasn’t in many of the foods our ancestors ate and we evolved to retain sodium. That is why salt became such an important commodity in the past. We don’t retain potassium very well as it is in all the foods we eat and therein lies the problem. Someone with anorexia does not eat enough so they do not get an adequate amount of potassium to allow their nervous systems to operate properly. Here is a study that showed a decrease in potassium in people with anorexia.
Anorexia patients muscles become taught as potassium is necessary for the relaxation of tissue. If you remember back to junior high school and the frog’s leg experiment when you put sodium on the leg, it contracts, if you put potassium on it, it relaxes. But how do you get potassium into someone with anorexia who does not want to eat? One way is to get them to drink no calorie electrolytes. Another is to stimulate their appetite using zinc. A study on zinc supplementation from the journal Eating and Weight Disorders showed that adding zinc to people with anorexia can increase their BMI dramatically. Unfortunately, as stated in the study, it is infrequently used. It should be a standard of care.
Depression is another serious issue that comes with anorexia and something that needs attention as well. Potassium levels below 4.0 mEq/L (found on a standard blood chemistry) always makes me ask whether a person is suffering from depression. So where can we find no calorie electrolytes as most of the ones on the market are filled with sugar or other sweeteners? Here are two sources, one from Charles Poliquin and one from my company, Knowledge Through Solutions. Either one will help add needed potassium to someone with anorexia but should not be considered a cure by any stretch.
Anorexia is a very complex disorder which needs a team to help the individual recover including psychological support. Family and close friends need to support the anorexic as well. Just know that there are ways to help recover people with anorexia.