Anorexia Nervosa – Facts, Symptoms, Causes
Anorexia is characterized by an aversion to eating and fear of gaining weight.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 1% of women and adolescent girls have anorexia. The percentage of men and adolescent boys with anorexia is much lower, as males account for less than 10% of reported cases, but the incidence in males is increasing. In the U.S., more than 1,000 women die annually from anorexia.
Medical Impact of Anorexia
Because people with anorexia do not get the nutrition necessary for good health, they can damage almost every organ system or body part, including the brain, liver, kidneys, heart, GI tract, bones, teeth, skin and hair. Anorexia, if left untreated, can result in serious medical conditions, such as:
- Low blood pressure
- An abnormally slow heart rate
- Reduced bone density, often resulting in osteoporosis
- Muscle loss and weakness
- Dehydration, sometimes leading to kidney failure
- Dry and brittle hair and skin
- Retarded growth
At its worst, anorexia can lead to a person’s death.
Signs of Anorexia
Individuals with anorexia take extreme measures to avoid eating. They often become abnormally thin – and still talk about feeling fat or bloated. Because they have a distorted image of their body, they often will continue to diet, even when they are severely underweight. Signs of anorexia include:
- An intense drive for thinness
- Refusal to maintain a minimal normal weight
- Fear of becoming fat
- Distorted body image
- Denying feelings of hunger
- Avoiding situations where food is involved
- Developing rituals around preparing food and eating
- Obsession with dieting
- Social withdrawal
- Pronounced emotional changes, such as irritability, depression and anxiety
In spite of dieting, people with anorexia are typically preoccupied with food, cooking, nutrition and the number of calories in each meal.
Another sign of anorexia is the tendency to exercise obsessively – well beyond what is needed to maintain good health. Individuals with anorexia also weigh themselves frequently. They often restrict not only food, but relationships, social activities and pleasure.
Physical signs of anorexia include thinning hair; dry, flaky skin, and cracked or broken nails. Woman with anorexia often stop menstruating.
Causes of Anorexia
While more research is needed before we understand the causes of anorexia and other eating disorders, we now know that several factors can contribute to its development . While there is no single root cause, people with anorexia generally are affected by one or more of the following contributing factors:
- Genetic predisposition
- Chemical imbalance
- History of a traumatic event
- Family disruption and/or dysfunction
- Sensitivity to cultural messages about the “ideal body”
Surprisingly, individuals with the disorder report that their anorexic behavior started out simply as a way to improve themselves. Anorexia often starts with a diet, which may be meant to help the person regain self-esteem and control. Some people perceive anorexia as a way to cope with problems when they feel out of control.
Helping Someone With Anorexia
If you suspect you or someone you know has anorexia, do something about it. Anorexia is a life-threatening disease. Seek professional counseling immediately.
For help, contact Walden Behavioral Care at 781-647-6727 or online.