Anorexia Nervosa Explained: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Anorexia nervosa is a psychological disorder in which a person refuses to eat. It occurs primarily among adolescent girls and young women, but one in ten are males. The word anorexia means "without appetite," but anorexics are actually often extremely hungry. In fact, anorexics tend to be obsessed with food and think about it much of the time. They may cook large meals for other people and not eat anything, or they may have strange eating rituals. They avoid eating for psychological reasons and may feel great pride in their self-control.

Some anorexics "purge" as a way to compensate for eating. Even eating a small amount of food may feel like a binge, and anorexics may make themselves vomit to compensate. Some anorexics use laxatives or diuretics to eliminate food from the body. However, these strategies are actually ineffective as weight loss devices and may further endanger the health of the sufferer. It is typical for anorexics to compulsively exercise to lose weight.

Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa

The primary physical symptom of anorexia nervosa is severe weight loss, involving more than 15 percent of the body weight. Other symptoms include low blood pressure, slow heartbeat, and growth of fine hair on the body (lanugo). Female anorexics may not begin menstruation, or their menstrual periods may stop. Signs of anorexia, however, can be missed as anorexics may hide their symptoms.

The disorder also affects other behaviors as well. The anorexic places an undue emphasis on weight and body shape on her evaluation of herself. Many anorexics isolate themselves from family and friends and may become depressed. Most victims consider themselves healthy or even overweight. Although others see skin and bones, anorexics see only bulges and fat. They may weigh themselves several times per day. Because of the obsessive nature of anorexia nervosa, many consider it an OC spectrum disorder. In fact, many people with eating disorders like anorexia nervosa also have symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Anorexics tend to be perfectionistic and may have character traits of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder as well.

Causes of Anorexia Nervosa

There is no one single cause for anorexia nervosa. Many anorexics report feeling out of control in other areas of their lives, and by conquering food they experience a sense of mastery and autonomy. In some cases, it may seem that anorexics try to starve themselves in order to avoid growing into adults, and in fact, maturity fears may be present. Other experts suggest that anorexics want to gain attention and a sense of being special; having the 'perfect' body is a means of obtaining positive attention from others. Still, others cite social problems and the growing emphasis on thinness in Western society. Indeed, anorexia nervosa is rarely seen in developing nations, where food may be scarce.

Treatment of Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa may include hospitalization, medication, and psychotherapy. Cognitive-behavioral and interpersonal therapy seems to be the most effective. Anorexics should be hospitalized if they suffer malnutrition, as the disorder can be life-threatening. Ten percent of those with anorexia nervosa admitted to university hospitals eventually die of starvation, suicide, or medical complications. Some physicians recommend that the patient's family also undergo therapy, as family interactions can contribute to the problem. Many anorexics can be successfully treated if they receive treatment early. However, others struggle with the disease throughout their lives.

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