The clinical biochemistry of anorexia nervosa

Ann Clin Biochem. 2012 Mar;49(Pt 2):132-43. doi: 10.1258/acb.2011.011185. Epub 2012 Feb 20.


In anorexia nervosa, under-nutrition and weight regulatory behaviours such as vomiting and laxative abuse can lead to a range of biochemical problems. Hypokalaemia is the most common electrolyte abnormality. Metabolic alkalosis occurs in patients who vomit or abuse diuretics and acidosis in those misusing laxatives. Hyponatraemia is often due to excessive water ingestion, but may also occur in chronic energy deprivation or diuretic misuse. Urea and creatinine are generally low and normal concentrations may mask dehydration or renal dysfunction. Abnormalities of liver enzymes are predominantly characterized by elevation of aminotransferases, which may occur before or during refeeding. The serum albumin is usually normal, even in severely malnourished patients. Amenorrhoea is due to hypogonadotrophic hypogonadism. Reduced concentrations of free T4 and free T3 are frequently reported and T4 is preferentially converted to reverse T3. Cortisol is elevated but the response to adrenocorticotrophic hormone is normal. Hypoglycaemia is common. Hypercholesterolaemia is a common finding but its significance for cardiovascular risk is uncertain. A number of micronutrient deficiencies can occur. Other abnormalities include hyperamylasaemia, hypercarotenaemia and elevated creatine kinase. There is an increased prevalence of eating disorders in type 1 diabetes and the intentional omission of insulin is associated with impaired metabolic control. Refeeding may produce electrolyte abnormalities, hyper- and hypoglycaemia, acute thiamin depletion and fluid balance disturbance; careful biochemical monitoring and thiamin replacement are therefore essential during refeeding. Future research should address the management of electrolyte problems, the role of leptin and micronutrients, and the possible use of biochemical markers in risk stratification.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Glands / physiology
  • Anorexia Nervosa / metabolism*
  • Blood Proteins / metabolism
  • Bone and Bones / metabolism
  • Electrolytes / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System
  • Kidney Function Tests
  • Lipid Metabolism
  • Liver Function Tests
  • Male
  • Testis / physiology


  • Blood Proteins
  • Electrolytes