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Anorexia Nervosa: Signs, Symptoms and Treatment

  • Revised/Updated : 2017-02-21
  • Synopsis : Information regarding Anorexia nervosa a psychiatric illness that describes an eating disorder with voluntary starvation purging and excessive exercise.

Main Document

Anorexia nervosa is a psychiatric illness that describes an eating disorder, characterized by extreme low body weight and body image distortion, with an obsessive fear of gaining weight.

Anorexia nervosa is defined as an eating disorder characterized by food restriction, inappropriate eating habits or rituals, obsession with having a thin figure, and an irrational fear of weight gain.[citation needed] It is accompanied by a distorted body self-perception, and typically involves excessive weight loss. Due to their fear of gaining weight, individuals with this disorder restrict the amount of food they consume.

"Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, surpassing even that of depression, and currently, there are no accepted pharmacological treatments," - Dr. Chiye Aoki.

Individuals with anorexia are known to control body weight commonly through the means of voluntary starvation, purging, excessive exercise or other weight control measures, such as diet pills or diuretic drugs.

Anorexia is something more drastic than just a problem with food. It is a strange way of using food, body weight or starving oneself to feel more in charge of one's life, to ease nervousness, anger, and anxiety. Most people with anorexia are females.

People with anorexia have an intense fear of being fat. Their abnormal eating habits develop from this panic psychosis. This cycle of self-starvation gradually becomes an obsession, which in severe cases becomes life threatening.

The person suffering from anorexia is usually 15% below his/her ideal weight and still considers him overweight. He hardly eats at all - may even weigh food before eating it. A person with anorexia will avoid high-calorie foods and exercise constantly.

Anorexia is an eating disorder where people, especially the teen group (adolescent girls) starve themselves - the main reason is to lose weight and turn lean. Anorexia usually begins in young people around the onset of puberty. Weight loss is obtained by many ways - some harmful also. The common techniques used are excessive exercise, intake of laxatives/ diet pills, vomiting after a meal and starving oneself to limitless extent. People with anorexia continue to think they are overweight, and will resort to dieting even after they become extremely thin.

Symptoms of Anorexia:

There are many symptoms for anorexia; not all individuals may experience similar symptoms. The common symptoms include a body weight that is inconsistent with age, build and height (usually 15% below normal weight).

Other symptoms include:

  • Constant exercise
  • Loss of hair on head
  • Fatigue and muscle tiredness, headaches
  • Obsession with food and calories
  • Irregular menstruation in women - loss of at least 3 menstrual periods
  • Amenorrhea (loss of menstruation)
  • Unusual eating habits (ie. cutting food into tiny pieces, picking at food)
  • Mood swings
  • Anaemia
  • Loss of hair on head
  • Fine downy hairs on face, neck, back
  • Dizziness
  • Pale complexion, dehydration

Risk Factors of Developing Anorexia

There are many biological and psychological risks associated with anorexia nervosa. They include shrunken bones, mineral loss, low body temperature, irregular heartbeat, debility of the brain due to lack of nutrients, permanent retardation of normal body growth, development of osteoporosis.

People who do not receive treatment may become chronically ill or even die in severe cases. Continued use of laxatives is extremely harmful for the body. It gradually wears out the bowel muscles and causes a decrease in its functional ability. Some laxatives may also contain harsh and toxic substances that may be reabsorbed into the body.

Long spells without adequate intake of food can cause fragile bones leading to osteoporosis, as well as damage to the heart, liver, kidneys and brain.

Anorexia can impede normal growth in the young, adolescents and cause difficulties in concentration. People with anorexia nervosa may also experience mental health problems such as depression and increased risk of suicide.

Common causes of anorexia

Until today, no definite and single cause of anorexia nervosa has been determined. It is likely that both inherent biological factors and factors in the person's social environment play an integral part in its development. Some experts feel that demands from peer pressure, society and families could possibly be underlying stress causes for anorexia.

Some believed causes include:

  • Frightened about getting fat
  • An obsessive and constant thinking about their weight, especially losing weight. Demonstration effect - If you have a mother or sister with anorexia, you are more likely to develop the disorder.
  • Perpetual fear of putting on weight
  • Emotional problems
  • Stressful events - traumatic events like rape, assault, puberty, death in the family as well as other stressful things like starting a new job, can lead to the onset of anorexia.
  • Pressure to be thin and attractive, because of a poor self image, and also to fit into a certain ideal of beauty.
  • Dysfunction in the part of the brain, which regulates certain metabolic processes.
  • Genes, hormones and family history

How is Anorexia Nervosa Treated?

Treatment of anorexia varies depending on the individual circumstances. There is no one single line of treatment. The initial treatment for anorexia is usually focused on immediate weight gain, especially with those who have particularly serious conditions that requires hospitalization.

Psycho-therapy is also an effective form of treatment and can lead to restoration of weight, return of menstrual periods in female patients, improved psychological self-image and normal social functioning.

Treatment for anorexia, which includes drugs and psychological support, aims to:

  • Bring back the person to a healthy, normal weight.
  • Re-instate normal food habits.
  • Treat any physical complication or associated mental, psychological problems.
  • Bring in family support to treat the condition.

In some cases, medication such as anti-depressants may be necessary, especially people with severe depression or serious obsessive-compulsive disorder symptoms.

Anorexia nervosa is a potentially life-threatening illness, and should be treated as soon as possible.

Quick Facts: Anorexia Nervosa

The term anorexia nervosa was coined in 1873 by Sir William Gull, one of Queen Victoria's personal physicians. The history of anorexia nervosa begins with descriptions of religious fasting dating from the Hellenistic era and continuing into the medieval period. A number of well known historical figures, including Catherine of Siena and Mary, Queen of Scots are believed to have suffered from the condition. The medieval practice of self-starvation by women, including some young women, in the name of religious piety and purity also concerns anorexia nervosa; it is sometimes referred to as anorexia mirabilis. It was not until the late 19th century that anorexia nervosa was widely accepted by the medical profession as a recognized condition. Today many celebrities have come forward discussing their struggles with anorexia, increasing awareness of the disease.

Statistics: Anorexia Nervosa

  • Anorexia is more prevalent in females and males born after 1945.
  • Anorexia has an average prevalence of 0.9% in women and 0.3% in men for the diagnosis in developed countries.
  • Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that is characterized by attempts to lose weight, to the point of self-starvation.
  • Anorexia nervosa is more prevalent in the upper social classes and it is thought to be rare in less-developed countries.
  • The condition largely affects young adolescent women, with those between 15 and 19 years old making up 40% of all cases.
  • The lifetime incidence of atypical anorexia nervosa, a form of ED-NOS in which not all of the diagnostic criteria for AN are met, is much higher, at 5 - 12%.
  • Anorexia nervosa, and the associated malnutrition that results from self-imposed starvation, can cause severe complications in every major organ system in the body.
  • A person with anorexia nervosa may exhibit a number of signs and symptoms, the type and severity of which may vary in each case and may be present but not readily apparent.
  • Between 50% and 75% of individuals with an eating disorder experience depression. In addition, one in every four individuals who are diagnosed with anorexia nervosa also exhibit obsessive-compulsive disorder.

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