The most feared and potentially deadly complication of the refeeding process of malnourished patients is the refeeding syndrome
Refeeding syndrome occurs when patients that have been nutritionally depleted begin to eat and metabolize calories. These patients have either lost 10% of their body weight the last three months or have had no nutritional intake for 10 days.
With this level of nutritional depletion, the body shifts from a catabolic state (a state of breaking down tissues for nutrients) to an anabolic state (a state of rebuilding tissues/growth). This change in metabolism leads to secretion of many hormones which contribute to shifts in salts and fluids in the body. The body is so hungry for nutrients that, in an effort to rebuild cells, it moves many salts from the blood to the growing cells.
Low levels of electrolytes such as potassium, phosphorus and magnesium in the blood may lead to potentially life-threatening complications such as:
• Heart failure
• Arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms)
• Respiratory failure
• Muscle breakdown
Guidelines for refeeding process
There are clear guidelines regarding when malnourished patients should go through the refeeding process in specialized units or a hospital setting:
• Weight < 75% ideal body weight
• Bradycardia (heart rate <50 bpm)
• Arrhythmias (irregular heart rate)
• Abnormal labs and unstable vital signs (Note: Baseline labs can be normal until patients start eating more and gaining weight)
Because these complications are so dangerous and can be fatal, the refeeding syndrome is typically treated in an inpatient eating disorder unit
and overseen by physicians with experience in treating the medical complications of eating disorders. These experts leverage the most current research to develop protocols for monitoring and treating refeeding syndrome.
At this severity of illness, treatment teams must also engage in concurrent psychoeducation for patients and families alike. Patients’ decision-making capabilities about treatment options can be impaired by the eating disorder itself, and they need to understand the dangers of the refeeding syndrome and why inpatient treatment is essential. Families benefit from information to understand the potential severity and complications of an eating disorder; with this knowledge, they can better support and assist their loved ones in making safe decisions when inpatient hospitalization is recommended following assessment.
ERC has extensive expertise in identifying patients at increased risk for the refeeding syndrome and managing the weight restoration process compassionately and strategically. For more information about medically supported treatment at ERC, a master’s-level clinician is available at 877-711-1878.
You can learn more about Dr. Aldridge, including her extensive eating disorder treatment experience and her commitment to fostering sustainable recovery. Dr. Aldridge also discusses refeeding syndrome in this Mental Note podcast.
occurs when patients that have been nutritionally depleted begin to eat and metabolize calories leading to a change in metabolism and secretion of many hormones which contribute to shifts in salts and fluids in the body. Refeeding syndrome can be deadly.
Delia Aldridge, MD, CEDS-S is Medical Director, Chicago Suburbs at Eating Recovery Center and Insight Behavioral Health. Dr. Aldridge is a Board-Certified Psychiatrist with 17 years of experience in treating adolescents and adults with eating disorders, mood and anxiety disorders, PTSD, personality disorders, substance abuse, and self-injury. Prior to joining ERC, Dr. Aldridge was the Medical Director for AMITA Health, Alexian Brothers Behavioral Medicine Institute - Center for Eating Disorders in Hoffman Estates, IL, a northwest suburb of Chicago. As an expert in refeeding, she has established a premier refeeding service for pediatric and adult patients with complex psychiatric comorbid conditions including self-injury, PTSD, mood disorders and substance use disorders.
Dr. Aldridge is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Rosalind Franklin University/ The Chicago Medical School, teaching medical students and residents about medical complications of eating disorders. Along with her staff, Dr. Aldridge published a chapter in the 2014 book, Non-Suicidal Self-Injury in Eating Disorders called "Eating Disorders and Non-Suicidal Self-Injury: From Primary Care to Inpatient Hospitalization." Dr. Aldridge is also one of the clinical contributors in the book: Self-Injury: Simple Answers to Complex Questions, addressing the practical approach of psychiatrist in treating this challenging behavior.
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