Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by an excessive fear of gaining weight. People with anorexia often have an unrealistic body image and see themselves as overweight, even if they are dangerously thin.
As a result, they restrict their food intake and engage in extreme weight-loss measures such as excessive exercise or purging. Anorexia can be deadly if left untreated. Let’s look into the causes, symptoms, and treatment of anorexia nervosa.
What Is Anorexia Nervosa?
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by self-starvation, an intense fear of gaining weight, and often an abnormally low body weight.
People with anorexia nervosa may obsessively count calories and exercise excessively to lose weight. It is a severe mental health condition that can lead to death if left untreated.
People with anorexia are more likely to commit suicide than the general population. This is because anorexia nervosa is an extremely difficult condition to overcome. Plus, the feelings of shame, isolation, and despair accompanying anorexia make it hard to seek treatment.
Anorexia nervosa usually begins during adolescence or young adulthood. It is more common in girls than boys and tends to run in families; 5% of adolescent girls in the United States suffer from anorexia nervosa.
What is Atypical Anorexia Nervosa?
Atypical Anorexia Nervosa patients meet all criteria for anorexia with one major exception – significantly low body weight. An atypical anorexia nervosa patient’s weight is within the normal range.
There are two subtypes of anorexia nervosa:
Restricting is probably the most common form of anorexia, people with this subtype severely restrict their calorie intake. They may do this by severely limiting their food types, obsessively counting calories, or exercising excessively.
Binge-purge is less common than the restricting type, people with this subtype engage in episodes of binging and purging. Binge eating is defined as eating an excessive amount of food in a short period of time. This is often followed by purging, which is getting rid of the food through self-induced vomiting, laxatives, diuretics, or over-exercising. Some even use diet pills to prevent weight gain.
People with anorexia nervosa may also suffer from bulimia nervosa, another severe eating disorder characterized by episodes of binging and purging.
Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa
Having anorexia nervosa can be an incredibly isolating experience, just like other mental disorders such as anxiety, bipolar, and depression. People with anorexia often withdraw from friends and family to focus on their weight loss goals. They may become fixated on dieting, working out, and counting calories.
There are physical, behavioral, and emotional symptoms of anorexia nervosa.
Since most eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa involve self-starvation, people with anorexia often have low body weight. They may also experience other physical symptoms such as:
- Generally poor physical health
- Significant weight loss
- Thin appearance
- Dry skin or yellowish skin
- Brittle nails
- Hair loss
- Muscle weakness
- Absence of menstrual period
- Irregular heart rhythm
Behavioral and Emotional
People with anorexia nervosa often display behaviors and emotions associated with the condition, including:
- Preoccupation with food, weight, and dieting
- Excessive exercise
- Refusal to eat certain foods or avoidance of eating altogether
- Social isolation
- Poor and low self-esteem
- Rigid thinking
- Inflexible behavior
- Frequent mood swings
- Repeated weighing or measuring oneself
They may also exhibit symptoms of other mood disorders or mental illnesses.
Causes of Anorexia
The exact cause of anorexia nervosa is unknown. However, it is thought to be caused by psychological, biological, and environmental factors.
People with anorexia often have low self-esteem and are overly concerned with their weight and body shape. They may also have obsessive-compulsive personality traits since anorexia nervosa is often characterized by obsessive behaviors such as regularly checking one’s weight or calorie counting.
There is evidence to suggest that anorexia nervosa may be caused, at least in part, by changes in the brain. People with anorexia often have abnormal levels of certain neurotransmitters, chemicals that help the brain communicate with the rest of the body.
Magazines, movies, and television often portray an unrealistic standard of beauty and weight, which can be a trigger for anorexia nervosa. People with family members or friends with an eating disorder may also be more likely to develop anorexia nervosa.
Risk Factors of Anorexia
Certain factors may increase an individual’s risk of developing anorexia nervosa. These include:
- Being female: Anorexia nervosa is more common in women than men. Women are three times more likely to have signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders than men. However, it is important to emphasize that men struggle with eating disorders as well.
- Age: Developing anorexia nervosa can occur at any age, it is most common in adolescents and young adults.
- Family history: People with a family member or first-degree relative who has an eating disorder are more likely to develop anorexia nervosa.
- Having another mental illness: People with mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are more likely to develop anorexia nervosa.
Life transitions such as starting a new job, going to college, or getting married, or traumatic events such as the death of a loved one or sexual abuse can also lead to this eating disorder.
Medical Complications of Anorexia
Since a healthy weight is vital to overall health, anorexia nervosa can lead to several complications. The body cannot function properly when it does not get the nutrients it needs, and anorexia can cause nutrient deficiencies. This can lead to problems such as:
- Muscle weakness
- Kidney damage
- Heart problems
- Growth of fine hair all over the body (lanugo)
Anorexia nervosa can also lead to an electrolyte imbalance, which can cause irregular heart rhythm and even heart failure. It is also associated with an increased risk of suicide.
Furthermore, when organs such as the brain, heart, or lungs do not get enough oxygen, it can lead to organ damage. Dehydration is also a common complication of anorexia nervosa since the body needs water to function properly.
Diagnosis of Anorexia
To treat anorexia, it is essential first to get an accurate diagnosis. A mental health professional such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or medical doctor can diagnose a patient with anorexia nervosa. The diagnosis is based on the individual’s symptoms, medical history, and family history.
Some of the tests that may be used to diagnose anorexia nervosa are:
- Physical examination: This can help assess an individual’s physical health by weight, height, body mass index (BMI), and vital signs. If the patient is below the normal weight range for their height or age, it may be an indication that they have anorexia nervosa.
- Lab tests: Blood tests such as a complete blood count (CBC) or a metabolic panel can help assess an individual’s nutrient levels and check for any electrolyte imbalances.
- Imaging tests: X-rays or computed tomography (CT) scans may be used to assess an individual’s bone density and look for organ damage.
- Psychological evaluation: A mental health professional will ask questions about an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (e.g., eating habits) related to food and their body weight and body shape. They will also assess for any other mental health disorders that may be present.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a criterion developed by the American Psychiatric Association, is also used to diagnose the level of anorexia nervosa.
Treatment Options for an Anorexia Eating Disorder
Fortunately, anorexia nervosa is a treatable condition. Many different treatment options are available, and treating anorexia will depend on the physical complications, health risks, current body weight and anorexic behaviors of this serious eating disorder. Thus, it is essential to work with a medical professional to develop a treatment plan that is best suited for you or your loved one.
Some of the most common treatments for anorexia nervosa are listed below:
Severe weight loss and other medical complications associated with anorexia nervosa may require medical treatment and hospitalization. This can help ensure that the individual gets the necessary nutrients and can be monitored for any other medical problems.
Sometimes, hospitalization may be involuntary if an individual is deemed a danger to themselves or others. Facilities that provide 24-hour care and supervision may also be an option for individuals with anorexia nervosa.
Treating anorexia is a residential setting like Turning Point of Tampa is often preferred to medical treatment and hospitalization. When a patient has awareness and is willing to address disordered eating, signs and symptoms of low body weight, physical problems and distorted body image of themselves, the recovery from eating disorders can begin.
A registered dietitian can help an individual with eating disorders and develop a healthy relationship with food. They can also advise how to create a balanced and nutritious diet.
With nutritional counseling, an individual with eating disorders can learn about portion sizes, food groups, and how to make healthy choices. They can also work on any psychological issues contributing to their eating disorders.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy commonly used to treat anorexia, binge eating and other eating disorders. CBT can help individuals with anorexia nervosa change their thoughts and behaviors related to food and their body.
Other types of psychotherapy, such as interpersonal therapy (IPT) or family-based therapy (FBT), may also be helpful.
IPT can help an individual with anorexia nervosa manage any co-occurring mental illness or interpersonal issues contributing to their disorder. FBT is typically involves the whole family in treatment.
There are no specific medications that the FDA approves to treat anorexia nervosa. However, some medications can be used to treat other conditions that may be present, such as depression, anxiety, or obsessive compulsive disorders.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as fluoxetine (Prozac) or sertraline (Zoloft), are commonly used to treat anorexia nervosa. These medications can help improve mood and increase appetite.
Antipsychotic medications, such as olanzapine (Zyprexa) or quetiapine (Seroquel), may also be used to treat anorexia nervosa since they can help increase appetite and weight gain.
It is important to note that medication should not be used as the only treatment for anorexia nervosa. Medication should be used in conjunction with other treatments, such as therapy or nutritional counseling.
Several alternative therapies may be helpful for individuals with anorexia nervosa. These are:
These therapies can help an individual with anorexia nervosa relax and reduce stress. They can also help improve their mood and increase their appetite.
Intense fear of Gaining Weight
Women and men who are diagnosed with eating disorders have an intense fear of gaining weight. The fear of weight gain is predominately associated with anorexia. Eating habits ranging from someone who might severely restrict food or have an extreme food restriction are physical signs that are outwardly seen. Compulsive exercise and an array of dietary supplements are also physical signs of anorexic behaviors.
How much food eaten in a day or measuring body fat become part of a daily food restriction or binge eating and purging lifestyle confirming symptoms of anorexia.
Can I Prevent Anorexia or Eating Disorders?
There is no sure way to prevent anorexia nervosa or any eating disorder. However, some things may help reduce the risk of developing the an eating disorder. These include:
- Eating a balanced and nutritious diet
- Exercising regularly
- Getting enough sleep
- Managing stress
- Avoiding fad diets
Help With Anorexia at Turning Point of Tampa
Turning Point of Tampa has a holistic approach to the treatment of eating disorders. We believe that there are several important aspects of any individual that must be considered during treatment. At Turning Point, we treat individuals with eating disorders such as binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, and anorexia nervosa.
The primary focus of treating eating disorders in our program is to offer nutritious, low sugar, high fiber, foods that also identify and eliminate each client’s individual food triggers and encourages eating.
At Turning Point of Tampa, we provide a safe food environment where meals are planned, prepared by the client, and weighed and measured.
If you feel that you or someone you love may have an eating disorder, contact our team for more information on our eating disorder and food addiction program.
How To Support Someone Who Is Recovering From Anorexia
If you have a friend or loved one who is recovering from anorexia, there are several things you can do to support them.
- Encourage them to attend regular appointments with their treatment provider
- Help them maintain a healthy diet
- Cheer them on as they exercise regularly
- Go to the gym or working out with them
- Listen to them as they talk about their recovery
- Help them avoid triggers
Remember to be patient and understanding, as recovery can be long and challenging.
People with anorexia nervosa are at an increased risk for several health complications. However, with treatment, many individuals with anorexia nervosa can go on to lead happy and healthy lives.
Various resources can help people with anorexia and their loved ones. These include support groups or group therapy, treatment facilities, and professional organizations such as:
The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA):
This organization provides information on eating disorders and support and resources for individuals with eating disorders and their loved ones.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH):
This government organization provides information on mental health disorders, including anorexia nervosa.
American Psychiatric Association (APA):
The APA is a professional organization for psychiatrists. They provide information on anorexia nervosa and other mental disorders.
With the proper support, recovery is possible. If you are a loved one are seeking help today – contact Turning Point of Tampa.