Eating disorders are something that many people struggle with. While some people have eating disorders for a short period of time, others may suffer from them for most of their lives. Anorexia nervosa is one type of eating disorder that can be especially difficult to deal with. This article explores the symptoms and causes of anorexia nervosa along with treatment and prevention options.
Anorexia nervosa, most commonly referred to as anorexia, is a type of eating disorder where a person loses an unhealthy amount of weight. People with anorexia have an obsession with their body weight that often leads them to destructive behaviors, such as starving themselves or exercising excessively. In most cases, these individuals end up losing weight to the point where they reach a weight that is unhealthy for their age and height due to this distorted body image.
Because people with anorexia are often obsessive about eating limited food and dieting, it comes as a surprise to some people that anorexia really has little to do with food. In reality, the people with this disorder are often trying to cope with emotional stress, anger or anxiety. The way they fixate on their food intake and weight is a way for them to try to feel more in control of their life.
Anorexia is marked by the following physical signs and symptoms:
- Extreme weight loss
- Dizziness or fainting
- Brittle nails
- Thinning hair
- Dry skin
- Bluish discoloration on the fingers
- Swelling of the arms or legs
- Absence of menstruation
- Low blood pressure
- Irregular heart rhythms
- Abnormal blood counts
The following emotional and behavioral symptoms are also associated with anorexia:
- Refusing to eat
- Preoccupation with food (i.e. weighing food, counting calories)
- Trying to hide a lack of eating (i.e. moving the food around the plate, not eating in public)
- Eating only a few foods in very small amounts
- Denial of hunger
- Weighing themselves frequently
- Looking in the mirror often
- Social withdrawal
- Lack of emotion
- Reduced sex drive
It’s worth noting that people with anorexia may use different methods to control their weight, including starving themselves or severely limiting their food intake, exercising excessively or by misusing laxatives, enemas or diuretics. Some may even exhibit a pattern of vomiting after eating, which is often associated with another eating disorder called bulimia. Whatever method is used for weight loss, however, the physical, behavioral and emotional signs listed above are typically the same for most individuals with the disorder.
Causes And Risk Factors
There is no one specific cause that leads a person to develop anorexia nervosa. In most cases, it is a combination of the following factors that play a role in the development of this eating disorder:
- Biology: Chemical and hormonal changes in the body can play a role in the development of anorexia.
- Psychological: Some people with anorexia develop the disorder as a result of their personal low self-esteem. Also, those who tend to have perfectionist or obsessive-compulsive tendencies may be more likely to develop the disorder.
- Cultural: Modern society often associates – whether intentionally or inadvertently –success, worth, beauty and happiness with having an ideal body. Additionally, some people experience peer pressure that leads them to fixate on their weight.
- Life changes: Undergoing a traumatic or stressful event can lead people to become anorexic. Examples include rape, the death of a loved one, starting a new job or experiencing a bad breakup.
- Genetics: People with an immediate family member suffering from anorexia are more likely to develop the disorder. This suggests that genetics could be a cause factor, and researchers are currently investigating a particular chromosome area which seems to be linked to the disorder.
Based on research of those with the disorder, some people are more likely to develop anorexia. Those risk factors include:
- Age: Young people, especially teenagers, are more likely to become anorexic.
- Gender: Females develop anorexia more often than males.
- Weight: People who lose or gain weight will sometimes develop anorexia in response to the positive or negative feedback they get on their results.
- Profession/hobbies: People who are athletes, actors, celebrities, models or dancers are more likely to develop anorexia due to the pressure to look or perform better.
There isn’t a guaranteed method for preventing anorexia nervosa. Instead, people can look for the signs and symptoms of the disorder in themselves or in others. It’s also helpful to talk to your doctor if you think that you may be at risk for the developing the disorder. If you are a parent or authority figure, it can also help to talk to younger people about the higher risk of developing the disorder at a young age, how to detect it and ways to develop a positive body image.
There are several types of treatment that are used for people with anorexia, including:
- Medical care: People with anorexia need to be monitored to ensure their vital signs are healthy. Some people with the disorder require tube feeding in order to get adequate nutrition.
- Medication: In some cases, drugs to treat mental conditions like depression or anxiety can help someone recover from anorexia. There are no medications available for treating anorexia specifically.
- Therapy: Individual, group and family-based therapy may be used to help the individual acknowledge and recover from the disorder.
- Hospitalization: In more serious cases, an individual may require hospitalization due to the toll that anorexia takes on their body. While some are hospitalized for medical reasons, others may be hospitalized for psychiatric concerns.
People who recover from anorexia may be tempted by the eating disorder later in life, so sometimes ongoing therapy or medication may help to prevent them from succumbing to anorexia again in the future.