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Anorexia Nervosa

What Is Anorexia Nervosa?

People suffering from anorexia nervosa intentionally deprive themselves of food in order to achieve their ideal level of thinness. Anorexia involves extreme weight loss (at least 15% below the individual’s ideal healthy weight) and a refusal to maintain a weight that is normal for their height, age and body type.

The self-esteem of individuals with anorexia is dependent on their weight. Even if they become emaciated and unhealthy, someone with anorexia still believes they are overweight. Losing weight, in their mind, demonstrates their exceptional self-discipline, while weight gain is a sign of failure and lack of self-control.

Most people who develop anorexia show signs in adolescence, often during a time of transition or stress, such as going away to college or experiencing a divorce or death in the family. An estimated 90% of those who develop anorexia are teen girls or young women, though a growing number of boys and men are developing anorexia as well.

Some of the weight reduction strategies commonly employed by those with anorexia include:

  • Dramatic reduction in calorie intake
  • Limiting food intake to just a few low-calorie foods
  • Bingeing and purging (especially through excessive exercise)
  • Refusing to eat in public or with friends or family
  • Fixing meals for others
  • Hoarding food but refusing to eat it

Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa

How do you know if you or someone you care about is suffering from anorexia? Look out for the following warning signs:

  • Dramatic weight loss
  • Frequently stepping on the scale and assessing appearance in the mirror
  • Restrictive dieting
  • Unusual eating habits, such as rearranging food on a plate or a preference for a specific type of food
  • Excessive exercise and intense anxiety if unable to work out
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Constipation and other digestive issues
  • Sensitivity to cold
  • Mood swings
  • Weakness and lack of energy
  • Dry skin
  • Loss of menstrual periods
  • Fainting

What Causes Anorexia?

Like other eating disorders, anorexia is caused by a complex blend of factors. Some potential causes of anorexia include:

  • Genetics
  • Emotional and psychological disorders
  • Family conflict
  • Stress
  • Unrealistic media images
  • Social and cultural expectations

The Consequences of Anorexia

Anorexia is one of the most life-threatening of all mental illnesses. Even when their health is in jeopardy, individuals with anorexia are still consumed with worries about their weight.

When the body is lacking vital nutrients, it slows down to conserve energy and begins to turn on itself. Some of the health risks of anorexia include:

  • Irregular heart beat or heart disease (the most common medical cause of death in people with anorexia)
  • Nerve damage, which can lead to seizures, chronic nerve problems and disordered thinking
  • Brain damage (some structural changes and abnormal activity may be irreversible)
  • Dehydration
  • Constipation
  • Infertility
  • Osteoporosis

Starving the body for a prolonged period of time also has significant emotional and psychological effects. This level of self-deprivation can start a vicious cycle of depression, low self-esteem and greater reliance on eating disorder behaviors to cope. 

Suicide is to blame for as many as half of the deaths that are caused by anorexia. When someone shows signs of having anorexia, quick action is needed to give the person the best chance at long-term eating disorder recovery.

Treatment for Anorexia Nervosa

Treatment for anorexia sometimes begins with hospitalization to prevent starvation, depending on the severity of the disease. Although anorexia is a mental illness, the physical effects can be so debilitating that medical care is the first course of action.

Because anorexia affects every area of an individual’s life, treatment addresses mind, body, spirituality, relationships and culture. A multidisciplinary team, which should include physicians, nurses, therapists and a dietician, provides a series of assessments and treatments tailored to the individual’s specific needs.

Even though they desperately need help, many individuals with anorexia resist treatment. Their fear of gaining weight and feeling out of control overpowers their concerns about their health.

There are therapists and eating disorder treatment programs that specialize in helping people with anorexia. In a safe, nurturing setting, people can receive comprehensive, individualized eating disorder treatment that addresses any underlying emotional or psychological issues contributing to the disorder. Because anorexia impacts those living close to the individual, family therapy is often provided.

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