What is Anorexia Nervosa?Anorexia is an eating disorder characterized by an individual’s obsession with food, their weight, and their body shape. Those suffering with the disorder attempt to maintain a weight that’s far below normal for their age and height. The person may be skeletally thin but still think that they are overweight, and they may starve themselves or exercise excessively to lose weight or prevent weight gain.
Signs, Symptoms and EffectsAnorexia has many physical, behavioral and emotional signs and symptoms. Some of the physical symptoms include extreme weight loss, thin appearance, abnormal blood counts, dry skin, constipation, dizziness or fainting, fatigue, brittle nails, low blood pressure, dehydration, hair that breaks or falls out, intolerance of cold, absence of menstruation, irregular heart rhythms, osteoporosis and a soft downy hair (lanugo) covering the body.
Emotional and behavioral symptoms include refusal to eat, denial of hunger, over exercising, difficulty concentrating, a preoccupation with food, and lack of emotion.
Individuals with anorexia can suffer from many long term health effects and complications. They may experience an array of heart problems, anemia, lung problems resembling emphysema, gastrointestinal problems, electrolyte abnormalities, and kidney problems. Five percent of those diagnosed with the disorder will die from a related complication.
What causes anorexia and who is affected by it?The cause of anorexia nervosa is likely a combination of biological and psychological factors. Individuals who have a biological relative suffering from anorexia are more likely to develop the disorder, suggesting that they are genetically vulnerable. It’s also believed that the brain chemical serotonin may place a role in the development of anorexia. Psychological factors may include emotional characteristics such as low self-worth, obsessive-compulsive personality traits and an extreme drive for perfectionism.
Anorexia tends to occur in adolescent girls and young adult women but can also affect boys, men, older women and younger girls. Estimates suggest that one-half to one percent of females in the U.S. develop the disorder. Anorexia has been characterized as a woman’s illness because it primarily affects young women, but children as young as 7 and women as old as 80 have been diagnosed with the disease.
Treatment and PreventionTreatment of anorexia nervosa is generally done using a team approach which includes medical providers, dietitians and mental health providers who all have experience with eating disorders. Medical care may often be necessary due to the physical complications of anorexia. Electrolytes, hydration levels and vital signs may need to be frequently monitored along with any other physical conditions.
Psychotherapy can help an individual deal with behaviors and thoughts that contribute to their disorder. It can also help someone gain healthier self-esteem and learn positive ways to cope with distress. With nutritional therapy, a dietician can offer guidance with a healthy diet. Dieticians can provide specific meal plans and calorie requirements to help an individual meet their weight goals. In severe cases, a feeding tube may be required.
There is no guaranteed way to prevent anorexia or any other eating disorder but steps can be taken to catch the disorder in the early stages or before it begins. Some traits in certain individuals are believed to be risk factors in developing anorexia. Anxiety, low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction and dieting are all believed to play a role in the development of the disease. If these traits can be identified early on, they can be treated before anorexia develops.