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Anorexia Nervosa: Causes, Symptoms, Signs & Treatment Help

What is Anorexia?

Anorexia Nervosa is a psychological and potentially life-threatening eating disorder. Those suffering from this eating disorder are typically suffering from an extremely low body weight relative to their height and body type.

Often referred to as BMI (Body Mass Index) is a tool that treatment providers often use to assess the appropriateness of body weight for an individual struggling with an eating disorder. Additionally, observations of eating patterns, exercise, and personality traits may give indications of an anorexic diagnosis. Those struggling with anorexia frequently fear gaining weight and have a distorted body image. They often believe they appear much heavier than they are.

Additionally, women and men who suffer from this eating disorder exemplify a fixation with a thin figure and abnormal eating patterns. Anorexia nervosa is interchangeable with the term anorexia, which refers to self-starvation and lack of appetite.

Major Types of Anorexia

There are two common types of anorexia, which are as follows:

  • Binge/Purge Type – The person struggling with this type of eating disorder will often purge after eating. This alleviates the fear of gaining weight and offsets some of the guilt of having ingested forbidden, or highly restricted food. The compensatory purge behavior by the individual with Binge/Purge Type anorexia may purge by exercising excessively, vomiting or abusing laxatives.
  • Restrictive – The individual suffering from restrictive anorexia is often perceived as highly self-disciplined. They restrict the quantity of food, calories and often high fat or high sugar foods. They consume far fewer calories than are needed to maintain a healthy weight. This is a heartbreaking form of self-starvation.

Though two classifications of this eating disorder exist, both types exhibit similar symptoms, such as an irrational fear of weight gain and abnormal eating patterns.

Woman Running at Sunset battling anorexia

Causes of Anorexia

It has been said that genetics load the gun and environment pulls the trigger in eating disorders. This eating disorder is based on genetic predisposition, personality traits, and environmental factors.

Examples of environmental factors that would contribute to the occurrence of this eating disorder are:

  • The effects of the thinness culture in media, that constantly reinforce thin people as ideal stereotypes
  • Professions and careers that promote being thin and weight loss, such as ballet and modeling
  • Family and childhood traumas: childhood sexual abuse, severe trauma
  • Peer pressure among friends and co-workers to be thin or be sexy.

Examples of biological factors include:

  • Irregular hormone functions
  • Genetics (the tie between anorexia and one’s genes is still being heavily researched, but we know that genetics is a part of the story).

Joyous Woman Who Overcame Anorexia Laying in the Grass

Anorexia Signs & Symptoms

An individual suffering from anorexia nervosa may reveal one or several signs and symptoms such as:

  • Chronic restrictive eating or dieting, beyond the norm
  • Rapidly losing weight or being significantly underweight and emaciated
  • Obsession with calories and fat contents of food
  • Engaging in ritualistic eating patterns, such as cutting food into tiny pieces, eating alone, and/or hiding food
  • Continued fixation with food, recipes, or cooking; the individual may cook intricate meals for others but refrain from partaking
  • Amenorrhea: an abnormal absence of menstruation, or loss of 3 consecutive menstrual cycles
  • Depression or lethargic stage
  • Development of lanugo: soft, fine hair that grows on face and body
  • Reported sensation of feeling cold, particularly in extremities
  • Loss or thinning of hair
  • Avoidance of social functions, family, and friends. May become isolated and withdrawn

Dieting Vs. Anorexia

Though the restrictive eating patterns that characterize this anorexic eating disorder are similar to dieting behaviors, there are stark differences between the two. The effects of the extreme behaviors resulting from this disease are far more devastating and consequential than any ill effects from dieting.

While someone may diet in an attempt to control weight, anorexia nervosa is often an attempt to gain control over one’s life and emotions, especially in the light of traumatic events or a chaotic environment.

While someone might diet in an attempt to lose weight as the primary goal, in anorexia they may diet because they perceive losing weight as a way to achieve happiness and self-mastery.

Anorexia Treatment

Seeking anorexia recovery from a well-qualified team of eating disorder specialists, consisting of a therapist, physician and nutritionist are recommended. Effective, holistic eating disorder treatment of anorexia involves three necessary components:

  • Happy, Beautiful Smiling Teen Working Through AnorexiaMedical: The highest priority in the treatment of anorexia nervosa is addressing any serious health issues that may have resulted from the eating disordered behaviors, such as malnutrition, electrolyte imbalance, amenorrhea and an unstable heartbeat.
  • Nutritional: This component encompasses weight restoration, implementation and supervision of a tailored meal plan, and education about normal eating patterns.
  • Therapy: The goal of this part of treatment is to recognize underlying issues associated with the eating disorder, address and heal from traumatic life events, learn healthier coping skills and further develop the capacity to express and deal with emotions.

Search for accredited eating disorder treatment centers in our directory.

Articles on Anorexia Nervosa

  1. How Dangerous Are the Long-Term Effects of Anorexia?
    Anorexia Nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental health issue. The physical dangers of starvation and consequences of declining mental and physical health are numerous. Learn more about the debilitating health consequences of anorexia nervosa… Read This Article

  2. Atypical Anorexia Nervosa: Signs and Symptoms
    Atypical anorexia nervosa is featured in the Diagnostic & Statics Manual, Edition 5 (DSM-5) category of Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders (OFSED). Frighteningly, many individuals who have Atypical Anorexia do not believe they have an eating disorder and are less likely to seek the life-saving treatment they need. Learn about the dangers and concerns of Atypical Anorexia Nervosa… Read This Article

  3. Anorexia Recovery and Overcoming Physical Side Effects of an Eating Disorder
    A highly regarded physician specializing in treating acute eating disorders outlines the health consequences of Anorexia Nervosa and the challenges faced in recovering from this life-threatening eating disorder. Learn about electrolyte imbalances, dehydration, edema and other physical consequences of anorexia nervosa… Read This Article

  4. Anorexia Nervosa – Highest Mortality Rate of Any Mental Disorder: Why?
    Many psychiatric disorders are dangerous, but when it comes to death, Anorexia holds the unfortunate leading cause of death in anyone with a psychiatric disorder. Issues related to refeeding syndrome, impaired brain function, and kidney failure all contribute to the potential of death from anorexia. Learn more about these life-threatening conditions experienced by males and females struggling with anorexia… Read This Article

  5. Inspiration Stories of Anorexia Nervosa Recovery
    Successful people outline their encouraging stories of overcoming disordered eating, extremely restrictive caloric consumption, over exercise other forms of unhealthy weight control methods. Find hope and proof that anorexia recovery happens and that you can recover from this eating disorder, too… Read This Article

  6. How Malnourishment Affects the Brain: Research on Anorexia and Neurobiology
    Many individuals who deal with anorexia nervosa are extremely bright, talented and gifted. However, the low body weight and lack of adequate caloric consumption can literally cause the brain to shrink. Cognitive impairment, emotional instability, and poor judgment often accompany anorexia nervosa… Read This Article

  7. Anorexia and Amenorrhea: What are the Consequences?
    Underweight women often stop menstruating and it can have long-term consequences on their health. In anorexia, the undereating, low weight and lack of nutritional needs being adequately met can lead to concerning health consequences such as orthopenia, orthorexia, and infertility struggles… Read This Article

  8. Long-Term Effects of Anorexia Nervosa
    Under the societal pressure to be thin, many people forgo their common sense knowledge about nutrition and health in order to look thin and feel accepted. Sadly, some of these individuals end up in full-blown anorexia nervosa battles that threaten their health and wellbeing… Read This Article

  9. Refeeding Patients with Anorexia Nervosa: What Does Research Show?
    It seems that weight gain and food are the cure for anorexia, however, the process of regaining weight is fraught with danger. It is crucial to understand the dangers of refeeding someone in recovery from anorexia nervosa. Learn more about the health risks and best practices of increasing eating and weight gain in the treatment of anorexia… Read This Article

  10. Anorexia and Friendship: How Do I Help My Friend?
    How to offer love and support to a friend you are concerned may have Anorexia Nervosa. Tips are provided here include respecting boundaries, communicating your worries about their low weight and/or restrictive eating, etc. This is one of the top questions posed to our team at Eating Disorder Hope, learn now how to best address your concerns regarding anorexia nervosa and your loved one… Read This Article

Page Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on February 14, 2018
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com, Eating Disorders Information & Resources

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