Anorexia Nervosa: Signs, Causes, and Treatment

Anorexia nervosa is a serious mental illness and a potentially life-threatening eating disorder. With the right treatment though, recovery is possible however recognizing the warning signs early on is important.

What is anorexia?

Anorexia results in excessive weight-loss and extreme thinness caused by a very low-calorie intake or self-starvation. Though it most commonly affects adolescent girls and women, it can also impact boys of all ages, races, and ethnicities. In addition to a very low body weight, anorexia is also accompanied by an intense fear to gain weight, extreme exercise regimens, refusal to eat in public, and an obsession with controlling one’s body shape and size.

What are the medical conditions and health risks of anorexia?

  • Abnormally slow heart rate
  • Low blood pressure
  • Abnormal blood count
  • Increased risk of heart failure
  • Bone loss, Osteoporosis or Osteopenia
  • Loss of muscle tone
  • Dehydration which, in extreme cases, can lead to kidney failure
  • Irregular periods in women and sometimes amenorrhea
  • Lower testosterone in men
  • Anemia
  • Electrolyte Imbalance
  • Feeling weak, fatigued, or dizzy, or experiencing fainting spells
  • Pale Skin
  • Hair loss
  • Brittle nails
  • Fine thin hair that grows over the skin in order to keep warm (lanugo)
  • Suicide in extreme cases

What are the signs and symptoms?

  • Excessive concern with food, calories and dieting
  • Refuses to eat certain food items and eventually omits a whole category such as carbohydrates, fats, and desserts
  • Makes frequent comments about feeling “fat” or overweight despite weight loss
  • Develops food rituals (e.g., eating foods in certain orders, excessive chewing, rearranging food on a plate)
  • Skips meals or avoids eating with others
  • Has concerns about eating public
  • Socially isolated from friends and family
  • Changes in mood and emotional state
  • Excessive exercise and rigid routines
  • Increased body dissatisfaction and body image distortion

What are the causes?

The exact causes of anorexia nervosa are unknown. However, there could be a genetic predisposition as research shows the illness may run in families. Other causes include psychological, environmental, and social factors.  Usually, people who suffer from anorexia have similar traits and tend to be perfectionists and overachievers; they are generally excellent students and are active in school and community activities. Many experts believe anorexia is related to unresolved traumas or conflicts that happened in childhood; and some think sexual abuse may also be a reason.

What are the treatment options?

Recovery is possible with the correct treatment, and the earlier you seek help, the higher the likelihood of overcoming it. Anorexia treatment requires a multidisciplinary team that includes a general practitioner, a psychologist, and a dietitian. In addition to counseling, family support is vital. It is important that family members know it is not their fault and at the same time understand the eating disorder and recognize its signs and symptoms. In fact family can play a big role in recovery and maybe a huge source of support. Group therapy is also sometimes helpful as people suffering from eating disorders may find comfort and support sharing their feelings and experiences with others.

If you or your loved one thinks they are suffering from anorexia nervosa, please feel free to reach out to [email protected]