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Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa (or simply anorexia) is an eating disorder that causes people to obsess about their weight and food.  People who suffer with this behavior problem have a distorted body image and see themselves as overweight even when their weight is dangerously low.  

Many people with anorexia use abnormal eating rituals to cope with stress, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Restricting food may give them a sense of control over their lives.

Facts about anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa has increased at an alarming rate over the last two decades. This condition affects more women than men and often starts during the teenage years.

Specialists don’t know what causes anorexia nervosa. The disorder often begins as regular dieting and gradually progresses to extreme and unhealthy weight loss.

People who develop anorexia are more likely to come from families with a history of weight problems, physical illnesses, and mental health disorders, such as depression and substance abuse. Other factors that may contribute to anorexia include social attitudes, family influences, genetics, neurochemical imbalances, and developmental issues.

Types of anorexia

Anorexia has two subtypes:

  • Restrictor type. People with this type of anorexia severely limit their intake of food, especially foods high in carbohydrates and fats.

  • Bulimic (binging/purging) type. People with bulimia overindulge in food and then induce vomiting. They may take large amounts of laxatives or other cathartics to clear their bowels.  

Symptoms

People with anorexia may have a variety of food or weight-related physical and emotional symptoms.

Food or weight-related symptoms:

  • Distorted body image

  • Low body weight

  • Extreme fear of becoming obese

  • Excessive physical activity

  • Denial of hunger

  • Preoccupation with food preparation

  • Unusual eating behaviors

Physical symptoms:

  • Malnutrition

  • Dehydration

  • Emaciation

  • Abdominal pain or bloating

  • Constipation

  • Lethargy or fatigue

  • Intolerance of cold temperatures

  • Fine, downy body hair (called lanugo)

  • Dry or yellowish skin

  • Thinning hair

  • Brittle nails

Emotional symptoms:

  • Social withdrawal

  • Loss of interest in sex

  • Irritability

  • Mood changes

  • Depression

  • Complications

Anorexia takes a devastating toll on the body and can lead to serious complications:

  • Anemia

  • Heart problems (arrhythmias, slow heart rate, heart failure, and mitral valve prolapse)

  • Low blood pressure

  • Kidney problems

  • Electrolyte imbalance

  • Lack of menstruation in women

  • Low testosterone in men

  • Bone loss

Diagnosis

Many people with anorexia hide their condition from others. Over time, family members, teachers, and coaches may become concerned about the person’s weight and behavior. Those who have anorexia need early evaluation and treatment to help prevent serious complications. Doctors typically take a medical history and do a physical exam. They may recommend psychological testing. Input from family members and other concerned adults can also be helpful.

Treatment

Treatment varies based on the person’s age, overall health, medical history, symptoms, and preferences. Aggressive medical care may be needed for physical complications. Nutritional counseling can help people with anorexia make nutritious food choices and restore their normal weight.

Through individual, family, or group therapy, a person with anorexia can learn how to deal with emotions, improve coping skills, and adopt healthy habits. Some people need medications to treat depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems.

Prevention

Experts don’t know how to prevent anorexia nervosa. Family members should model healthy attitudes and behaviors about weight, food, exercise, and appearance. Concerned adults can help vulnerable children and teens build self esteem through academics, hobbies, volunteer work, and other activities that aren’t related to appearance.

Managing anorexia nervosa

People with anorexia need to follow a comprehensive treatment plan to regain their health. They should resist weighing themselves frequently and avoid isolating themselves during their recovery. Another help is to identify and avoid triggers that lead to anorexic behaviors.

Home remedies

If you have anorexia, talk with your health care provider about what dietary supplements take to ensure that you get adequate nourishment.

Relaxation techniques, such as yoga, may help ease emotional and physical symptoms.

Online Resources

Merck Manuals Home Edition  http://www.merck.com/mmhe/sec07/ch103/ch103b.html#sec07-ch103-ch103b-316
National Eating Disorders Association  http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/nedaDir/files/documents/handouts/EDsPrev.pdf
National Institutes of Mental Health  http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders/complete-index.shtml#pub3
Medline Plus  http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/eatingdisorders.html?print=y

© 2000-2011 Krames StayWell, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.