Anorexia nervosa is a type of eating disorder. People who have anorexia have an intense fear of gaining weight. They severely limit the amount of food they eat and can become dangerously thin.
Anorexia affects both the body and the mind. It may start as dieting, but it gets out of control. You think about food, dieting, and weight all the time. You have a distorted body image. Other people say you are too thin, but when you look in the mirror, you see your body as overweight.
Anorexia usually starts in the teen years. It’s much more common in females than males. Early treatment can be effective. The earlier it is treated, the better the chances someone can recover from anorexia. Untreated anorexia can lead to starvation and serious health problems, such as bone thinning (osteoporosis), kidney damage, and heart problems. Some people die from these problems.
If you or someone you know has anorexia nervosa, get help right away. The longer this problem goes on, the harder it is to overcome. Over time and with treatment, a person with anorexia nervosa can feel better and stay at a healthy weight.
What causes anorexia nervosa?
Eating disorders are complex, and experts don’t really know what causes them. But they may be due to a mix of genetics, family behaviours, social factors, and personality traits. You may be more likely to have anorexia if:
- Other people in your family have an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia nervosa.
- Your job or you do a sport that stresses body size, such as ballet, modelling, or gymnastics.
- You are the type of person who tries to be perfect all the time, never feels good enough, or worries a lot.
- You are dealing with stressful life events, such as divorce, moving to a new town or school, or losing a loved one.
Sub-types of anorexia nervosa
There are two sub-types of anorexia and both are very serious mental illnesses that require treatment.
People with the restricting sub-type place severe restrictions on the amount and type of food they consume. These includes restrictions of certain food groups such as carbohydrates and fats. They also do calorie counting, skipping meals, and/or obsessive rules and also rigid thinking (e.g. only eating food that is one colour). These restrictive behaviours around food may be accompanied by excessive exercise.
Binge Eating/Purging Sub-type
People with this sub-type also place severe restriction on the amount and type of food they consume. In addition to this the person will display purging behaviour. They may also engage in binge eating. Binge eating involves eating a large amount of food and also feeling a ‘loss of control’. Purging behaviour involves self induced vomiting, or deliberately misusing laxatives, diuretics or enemas to compensate for eating food.
What are the symptoms?
People who have anorexia often strongly deny that they have a problem. They don’t see or believe that they do. It’s usually up to their loved ones to get help for them. If you are worried about someone, you can look for certain signs.
People who have anorexia nervosa:
- Loss or thinning of hair
- Low self-esteem (guilt, self-criticism, worthlessness)
- Becomes deceitful and secretive around food
- Mood swings
- Suicidal or self-harm thoughts or behaviours
- Anxiety or depression
- Heightened anxiety around meal times
- Avoidance of social situations involving food
- Avoidance of social functions, family, and friends.
- Weigh much less than is healthy or normal.
- Afraid to gain weight.
- Refuse to stay at a normal weight.
- Think they are overweight even when they are very thin.
- Abnormal absence of menstruation
- Deny the seriousness of their low body weight.
- Base their self-esteem on how they view their body weight and shape.
- Engaging in ritualistic eating patterns, such as cutting food into tiny pieces, eating alone, and/or hiding food
- Obsess about food, weight, and dieting.
- Strictly limit how much they eat.
- Exercise a lot, even when they are sick.
- Vomit or use laxatives or water pills (diuretics) to avoid weight gain.
- Feeling cold all the time
- Sleep problems
How is anorexia diagnosed?
If your doctor thinks that you may have an eating disorder, he or she will compare your weight with the expected weight for someone of your height and age. He or she will also check your heart, lungs, blood pressure, skin, and hair to look for problems caused by not eating enough. You may also have blood tests or X-rays.
Your doctor may ask questions about how you feel. It is common for a treatable mental health problem such as depression or anxiety to play a part in an eating disorder.
How is it treated?
Treatment of anorexia needs to address the medical, nutritional, psychological and also behavioural aspects of the illness. All people who have anorexia nervosa needs treatment. Even if you, your child, or someone else you care about has only a couple of the signs of an eating disorder, get help now. Early treatment gives the best chance of overcoming anorexia.
Treatment can help you get back to and stay at a healthy weight. It can also help you learn good eating habits and learn to feel better about yourself. Because anorexia nervosa is both a physical and emotional problem, you may work with a doctor, a dietitian, and a counselor.
If your weight has dropped too low, you will need to be treated in a hospital. Anorexia nervosa can take a long time to overcome, and it is common to fall back into unhealthy habits. If you are having problems, don’t try to handle them on your own. Get help now.
Other treatment options such as medications and supplements to help strengthen your bones. Also, in some cases, medication prescribed by a doctor to support your mental health.
Most people do get better with treatment and are able to eat and exercise in healthy ways again. Some may get better after the first treatment. Others get well but may relapse and need treatment again.
Is recovery from anorexia nervosa possible?
Yes. It is possible to recover from anorexia nervosa. Even if you have been living with the illness for many years. The path to recovery can be long and challenging. However with the right team supporting you and a high level of commitment, recovery is achievable. Treatment for anorexia nervosa is available. Seek help from a professional with specialised knowledge in eating disorders.
What should you do if you think someone has anorexia?
It can be very scary to realize that someone you care about has an eating disorder. But you can help.
If you think your child has anorexia:
- Talk to him or her. Tell your child why you are worried. Let him or her know you care.
- Make an appointment for you and your child to meet with a doctor or a counselor.
If you’re worried about someone you know:
- Tell someone who can make a difference, like a parent, teacher, counselor, or doctor. A person with anorexia may insist that help isn’t needed, but it is. The sooner the person gets treatment, the sooner he or she will be healthy again.
Risks or complications
With anorexia, your body doesn’t get the energy that it needs from food. Therefore, it slows down and stops working normally. Over time, anorexia can affect your body in the following ways:
- Heart problems such as low blood pressure, a slower heart rate, irregular heartbeat and heart attack
- Anemia (when your red blood cells do not carry enough oxygen to your body)
- Thinning of the bones
- Kidney stones or kidney failure
- Lack of periods, which can cause problems getting pregnant
- During pregnancy, a higher risk for miscarriage, cesarean delivery, or having a baby with low birth weight
- Anorexia is a serious illness that can also lead to death.