"fixing a heart": The game of electrolytes in anorexia nervosa

Jean Abed, Hani Judeh, Elie Abed, Matthew Kim, Haword Arabelo, Rajan Gurunathan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Conclusion: Given the clinical presentation, this patient likely presented on the brink of developing frank refeeding syndrome, with cardiac dysfunction and hypovolemia, leading to hepatic hypoperfusion and ischemic hepatitis. Subsequently, she developed electrolyte disturbances characteristic of refeeding syndrome, which were managed without major complication. Her hospital course is encouraging not only for her recovery, but for the collaboration of the different teams involved in her care, and it highlights the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to caring for patients with the potential dire complications of a complex psychiatric illness.

Case: A 25-year-old woman with chronic anorexia nervosa and depression presented with sudden weakness and fatigue. Psychosocial history was notable for binge-starve cycles over the past year and a decline in overall well-being. Vitals on presentation were notable for hypothermia, hypotension, and bradycardia. Initial exam was significant for emaciation, lethargy, and lower extremity edema. Laboratory work-up revealed markedly elevated LFTs, hypoglycemia, thrombocytopenia and elevated INR and lipase. ECG showed sinus bradycardia with prolonged QTc. Ultrasound revealed normal liver and biliary tree. Serum acetaminophen, alcohol level, and urinary toxicology were unremarkable. Work up for infectious, autoimmune, and genetic causes of hepatitis was negative. Echocardiogram revealed left ventricular hypokinesis and EF 10-15%. Nutritional support was begun slowly, however electrolyte derangements began to manifest on hospital day 2, with hypophosphatemia, hypokalemia, hypocalcemia, and hypomagnesemia. Multiple medical and psychiatric disciplines were consulted, and aggressive electrolyte monitoring and repletion were done. The patient's overall clinical status improved slowly during her hospital course. Her liver enzymes trended down, and her QTc interval eventually returned toward the normal range. Repeat echocardiogram following treatment revealed improvement of her EF to 40%.

Discussion: Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by extremely low body weight, fear of gaining weight or distorted perception of body image, and amenorrhea. Anorexia can lead to life threatening medical complications, and thus constitutes a major challenge to manage. Central to the pathogenesis of the refeeding syndrome is a weakened cardiopulmonary system, electrolytes abnormalities, hepatic dysfunction, liver hypoperfusion and failure.

Original languageEnglish
Article number90
JournalNutrition Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - 5 Sep 2014


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