Anorexia Nervosa – A life-threatening eating disorder

Anorexia nervosa is a severe psychological disorder. It is a potentially life-threatening eating disorder. However, with the right treatment, rescue is possible.

Commonly this condition involves emotional challenges like an exaggerated fear of becoming overweight or obese and attaining an unrealistic body image.  It often arises during the teenage years or early adulthood, but it can begin in the preteen years as well. Anorexia nervosa is estimated the third most common chronic illness among teens.

In the United States, eating disorders affect some 30 million men and women. Anorexia nervosa can develop in both men and women, but it is 10 times more common in females. Approximately 1 in every 100 American women experiences anorexia at some time.

There is a wide range of reasons for a person to develop anorexia. Its symptoms range from mild to severe. Anorexia can be fatal. In fact, anorexia has one of the highest mortality rates as compare to any other mental illness. However, effective treatments are accessible and recovery is possible if you’re struggling with anorexia. All it needs is determination, hard work and honesty with your treatment team and yourself.


Anorexia nervosa is a complex disorder, but the main indication is usually severe weight loss. The person may also talk about being overweight, while objective measures, such as BMI, tells something else about that person.

Behavioral changes may include a rejection to eat, exercising excessively, use of laxatives or self induced vomiting after consuming food. It mostly results in severe deficiency of nutrients.

Physical signs and symptoms resulting from a deficiency of nutrients include,

  • Severe loss of muscular mass
  • Listlessness, exhaustion, fatigue
  • Blood pressure, or hypotension
  • Light-headedness or dizziness
  • Hypothermia, or low body temperature, cold feet and hands
  • Constipation and bloated or upset stomach
  • Dry skin
  • Swollen hands and feet
  • Alopecia, or hair loss
  • Loss of menstruation or disturbance in periods
  • Infertility
  • Insomnia
  • Osteoporosis, or loss of bone density
  • Brittle nails
  • Asymmetrical or abnormal heart rhythms
  • Fine downy hair growing on the entire body, and increased facial hair
  • Vomiting, bad breath, and tooth decay, due to acid in the vomit

Anorexia nervosa is not only about escaping food, but it also fetches emotional challenges which include,

  • Excessive fear of being fat or overweight
  • Frequently weighing and measuring themselves and examining their bodies in the mirror
  • Fascination with food, for example, reading cookery books
  • Untruthful about food intake
  • Not eating or refusing to eat
  • Self-denial
  • Lack of emotion or a depressed mood
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Memory loss
  • Obsessive-compulsive behavior
  • Irritability
  • Over-exercising

Food and eating becomes associated with guilt. It may be problematic to talk to the person about a possible solution, as they will likely reject to acknowledge that anything is wrong.

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Anorexia has no single cause. It seems that a genetic predisposition is necessary but not enough for the development of the disorder. Twin and family studies, brain scans of affected and unaffected family members, and a current multicenter gene analysis support observations that anorexia is found in families with a perfectionist, obsessive, and competitive traits, and maybe also autistic spectrum traits.

Anorexia nervosa is precipitated as a coping mechanism against, for instance, transitions, developmental challenges, family conflicts, and academic pressures. Sexual abuse may precipitate anorexia but not more common than it would trigger other psychiatric disorders. The onset of adolescence and puberty are particularly common precipitants, but anorexia is also found without apparent precipitants in otherwise well-functioning families.

As mentioned above that single cause has been identified for anorexia nervosa. It probably happens as a result of biological, psychological and environmental factors.

The following risk factors have been linked with it,

  • Being susceptible to anxiety and depression
  • Having difficulty handling stress
  • Being excessively afraid, worried or doubtful about the future
  • Having a negative self-image
  • Being a perfectionist and desperately concerned about rules
  • Having eating problems in the duration of infancy or early childhood
  • Holding specific ideas concerning beauty and health, which may be influenced by culture or society
  • Having had an anxiety disorder during childhood
  • Experiencing a high level of emotional restraint or control over their own expression and behavior

The person may be excessively worried about their weight and shape, but this is not essentially the key factor. Between 33 to 50 percent of people with anorexia also have a mood disorder, such as depression, and around half have an anxiety disorder, such as social phobia and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This suggests that a low self-image and negative emotions may contribute, in some cases.

Anorexia nervosa can be developed in a person as a way of gaining control of some aspect of their life. As they apply to control their food intake, this feels like success, and so the behavior continues.


An early diagnosis and quick treatment increase the chance of a good result. A full medical history can help with diagnosis.

The physician will ask about weight loss to the patient, how they feel about their weight, and, for females, about menstruation. It can be hard for the patient to open up and speak openly about themselves. It may take years to confirm a diagnosis, especially if the person was previously obese.

If the physician detects symptoms of anorexia nervosa, they may order tests to rule out other underlying medical conditions with similar signs and symptoms.

These include,

  • Diabetes
  • Chronic infections
  • Addison’s disease
  • Malabsorption
  • Immunodeficiency
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBS)
  • Cancer
  • Hyperthyroidism

These may include imaging scans, blood tests, and an electrocardiogram (ECG).

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Complications can disturb every body system, and they can be serious. Physical complications include,

Cardiovascular problems like low blood pressure, low heart rate, and damage to the heart muscle. There is a higher risk of developing anemia, a low red blood cell count, and leukopenia, or low white blood cell count.

Gastrointestinal problems include slow movement in the intestines, considerably when a person is severely underweight and eating too little, but this resolves by improving the diet. Dehydration can lead to highly concentrated urine. The kidneys usually recover as weight levels improve.

Hormonal problems also occur during adolescence, growth can be delayed by a lower level of growth hormones in the body. Normal growth resumes with a healthy diet. Bone may fracture also. Patients whose bones have not fully grown yet have a considerably higher risk of osteoporosis, or loss of bone mass, developing osteopenia, or reduced bone tissue. Timely diagnosis and treatment decrease the risk of complications.


There is a common myth that anorexia can be treated if the person just starts eating, however, since there are so many other factors causing anorexia than food. Many sufferers think of the behaviors associated with anorexia as a useful way to cope. It is understood that anorexia is an illness that creates disordered thoughts, and treatment helps.

The first focus of treatment is re-establishing a healthy weight with a proper diet. Depending on the severity of disease and the complications, some individuals may need to be hospitalized. If individuals are badly malnourished or refuse to eat, they may need some time in the hospital.

There are also eating disorder treatment facilities that deal outpatient day programs that you attend. There, with a team of professionals, patients participate in individual and group therapies, nutrition education, and other treatment activities.

Some might see a therapist on weekly basis. Individual therapy can help the patient to adopt healthy ways of coping, change negative thoughts and behaviors and reduce anxiety. In family-based therapy, families work together to resolve clashes. The professional therapist can also help in group therapy and give people the opportunity to connect with society.

Areeba Hussain

Areeba is an independent medical and healthcare writer. For the last three years, she is writing for Tophealthjournal. Her prime areas of interest are diseases, medicine, treatments, and alternative therapies. Twitter @Areeba94789300

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