Anorexia Nervosa: A Life Threatening Eating Disorder
Anorexia nervosa is a psychological disorder defined by extremes in low body weight relative to stature. Apart from low Body Mass Index, other signs of this eating disorder include:
- Extreme/needless weight loss
- Irrational, deep fear of weight gain
- Distorted perception of self-image and body
Close to 90-95 percent of those who suffer this disorder are girls and women. In the US, an estimated 0.5 to 1 percent of women suffer from this disorder.
This is one of the most commonly occurring psychiatric diagnoses in young women. Another important statistic is the probability of death from this condition.
Close to 5-20 percent of those struggling with anorexia die- chances of death increase the longer the condition exists. It has one of the highest death rates associated with a psychological disorder. This mental health condition occurs in early to middle adolescence generally.
Men and women who suffer from this disorder are fixated on abnormally thin figures which necessitate a change in eating patterns. It is a condition characterised by self-starvation and lack of appetite.
Major Kinds of Anorexia
Two major types of anorexia exist namely:
- Anorexia Nervosa Binge/Purge Type
- Restrictive Anorexia Nervosa
Anorexia Nervosa Binge/Purge Type
In this case, the individual feel a huge sense of guilt in eating and purge what he/she eats. Compensation for the eating is through vomiting, exercising excessively or overuse of laxatives
In this type of anorexia nervosa, the limit is placed on the quantity of the good consumed, investing a minimal amount well below body’s caloric intake, leading to slow starvation.
This disorder is not simple. It has many signs and symptoms associated with it. Causes are complex as are its effects.
Anorexia Signs and Symptoms
Individuals suffering from anorexia nervosa may display several symptoms including:
- Chronic, long term dieting
- Hazardous underweight
- Food and calorie-obsessed; constantly analysing fat content
- Ritualistic eating behaviour like cutting food into small bites, eating on their own or hiding food
- Person may also cook massive meals for others, yet refuse to eat; there is a prolonged fixation with recipes and cooking
- Amenorrhea or absence of menstruation (as defined by loss of 3 consecutive menstrual cycles)
- Depression or lethargy
- Lanugo or fine soft hair that grows on the body
- Loss or thinning of hair
- Sensation of cold in the extremities
- Avoidance of social functions and gatherings
Dieting and Anorexia
Restrictive eating patterns in anorexia are a bit like dieting, but there are also massive differences between the two. While anorexia nervosa has devastating consequences, dieting is less drastic.
While dieting is to gain target or healthy weight, anorexia involves preoccupation with extreme weight loss as a means of happiness and control.
Early warning signs of anorexia may be concealed or mistaken for dieting or the impact of prescription drugs.
Physical Symptoms of Anorexia
The physical symptoms of anorexia nervosa include:
- Drastic weight loss (around 15 percent or more of normal body weight) and extremely thin appearance
- Irregular blood count and raised liver enzymes
- Fatigue and tiredness
- Giddiness or fgainting
- Brittle nails
- Thinning or breaking hair
- Absence of menstruation ‘
- Presence of lanugo
- Dry Skin
- Inability to withstand cold
- Irregular heart rhythms/ tachycardia
- Low blood pressure
- Osteoporosis leading to broken or fractured bones
- Dry, cool skin
- Nausea or bloating
- Low BP
- Dark circles under the eyes
Physical signs are easy to hide for the patient. They may wear oversized clothes to hide weight loss or multiple layers to maintain body temperature. They will also avoid disrobing for medical examinations in a bid to prevent the doctor from interfering with their weight loss goals.
Anorexia causes malnutrition and dehydration leading to dangerous electrolyte imbalances. Long-term health complications of this disorder include:
- Brittle bone disease
- Iron deficiency and anaemia
- Heartbeat irregularities
- Hormonal problems
- Developmental delays
- Mental confusion
What Other Warning Symptoms Are There?
Some of the patterns of anorexia signs and symptoms that eating disorder specialists look out for include the following:
Anorexia is a complicated disease affecting men and women in different ways. Adolescent women with anorexia show dramatically higher incidence of alcoholism than the rest of the peer group, as do college going women.
Over the counter energy supplements, dietary boosters and prescription meds for disorders like ADHD suppress appetite and due to the ready availability of these drugs, anorexia patients are more likely to misuse them for appetite suppression.
Anorexia also exists with major depression, anxiety disorders or OCD- these are co-morbid conditions. Patients with additional conditions face a long-term treatment path and more challenges in recovery.
Joining Pro Ana Websites
Numerous internet web communities support toe culture of pro-ana or anorexia and eating disorders, providing “thin inspiration” for anorexics, bulimics and others with deadly eating disorders. Anorexics may join these sites and even follow a pro-ana lifestyle.
Anorexia=Drastic Weight Loss
Anorexia is characterised by three chief factors:
- Refusal to have healthy body weight
- Morbid fear of gaining weight
- Distorted body image
Refusal to leave the pursuit of thinness until you go to extremes to lose weight and it’s never enough- this is a sure sign of anorexia.
Anorexia Eating Habits
These are very different from normal eating habits and involve:
- Dieting despite being thin
- Preoccupation with calories, fat grams and nutrition
- Pretence about eating or lies about food consumed
- Obsession with food
- Drastic weight loss
- Strange/ secret food rituals
- Denial of thinner.
- Feeling fat despite being underweight
- Harshly critical of appearance
- Denial you are thin
- Frequently taking your weight and concern over even tiny fluctuations
Anorexia Purging Symptoms
- Use of water pills, diet pills, laxatives or diuretics
- Compulsive exercising
- Throwing up after eating
- Working out hard after a binge session
Changes in Behaviour
It is well known that the defining symptom of anorexia is extreme weight loss but behavioural changes of the disorder appear much before. Changes in eating attitudes, habits and body image beliefs are noted.
Some of the behavioural red flags include:
- Getting on to a scale many times in a day
- Making up lies to miss meals
- Practising rituals like dividing portions, eating too slowly or eating only one type of food
- Displaying preoccupation with food
- Exercising to the breaking point
- Wearing baggy clothes to hide abnormal thinness
- Isolation and depression
Emotional Symptoms of Anorexia
This includes :
- Depression, hopelessness and despair
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Showing preoccupation with perfection
- Worrying thoughts about the future
- Suicidal ideation
Causes of Anorexia Nervosa
Anorexia- an unhealthy view of food and obsession with body image- has a host of causes.
- The impact of thinness culture in mass media
- Reinforcement of thin people as ideal stereotypes
- Professions and careers promoting thinness and weight loss
- Family and childhood trauma or abuse
- Peer pressure
- Irregular hormone functions
- Nutritional Deficiencies
As with bulimia, anorexia is a disorder that involves interaction between biology, psychology and social factors.
Psychological and emotional characteristics may leave people susceptible to anorexia including:
- Low self-esteem
- OCD traits or thoughts
- Low levels of neurotransmitter serotonin
- Cultural influences
Effects depend on the severity of the disease. Forced withdrawal from education, loss of faith, career breaks, isolation from family and friends and suicide are some of the effects. The physical impact of anorexia includes infertility, blackouts, the shutdown of the body, brain damage, heart diseases and death.
According to the National Women’s Health Information Centre, some of the risk factors for anorexia include strict dieting, family history of anorexia, physical or sexual abuse, perfectionism, difficulty in emotional expression or troubled family setting.
In light of the complexities of anorexia nervosa, professional treatment needs a holistic approach which incorporates:
- Medical treatment
- Nutritional counselling
Serious health issues result from anorexia including anaemia and heart disease as well as disruption of heart rhythms
Hell from a dietician is essential for recovery from this eating disorder. This includes the formulation and implementation of a healthy eating plan. Education about normal eating behaviours is also important.
Various forms of therapy like rational emotive, behavioural, cognitive and humanistic may be used to help the anorexic patient to address life issues and heal from trauma. Learning healthier coping skills and improving self-esteem are also a must.
Steps to Recovery
- Talk to others
- Stay away from culture promoting thinness
- Seek professional help
- Stabilise serious health issues
- Develop healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with depression, loneliness and insecurity
- Healthy diet and use of self-esteem to prevent abnormal eating patterns
- Coping with difficult emotions through mindfulness
- Challenging damaging mindsets
Anorexia is a dangerous eating disorder with a lot of potential complications. If you or a loved one has this disorder, get help immediately to prevent adverse impact of chronic anorexia nervosa.