What is anorexia?

Anorexia nervosa, more commonly known as simply anorexia, is a psychological condition characterised by the desire of the individual to keep as low a body weight as is possible. It is a mental health disorder associated with low weight, a fear of gaining weight, and control over diet and exercise. In those with anorexia, a high value is placed upon control over the weight and shape of the body, to the extent where it interferes in daily life.

Anorexia more commonly affects young girls and women, although it is now becoming more common among boys and men. The condition increases the risk of death in sufferers, through complications associated with anorexia, or suicide.

Each individual seeks to control their weight and shape in different ways, including restriction of food and diet, excessive exercising, misusing laxatives and/or diet aids, and vomiting after consuming food. Some individuals binge (consume large amounts of food), then purge (vomit), as seen in those who have bulimia nervosa.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of anorexia nervosa are not simply associated with weight loss, as the disorder is psychological, meaning symptoms displayed are also emotional, and behavioural. Physical signs of the condition include:

  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Brittle, dry hair, which falls out or breaks easily
  • Yellow skin
  • Lack of periods
  • Dry skin
  • Dizziness
  • Extreme weight loss
  • Difficulty passing stools (constipation)
  • Abnormal blood count
  • Low tolerance to the cold
  • Tinges of blue in the fingers
  • Soft hair all over the body

Symptoms associated with behaviour and emotional symptoms include:

  • Self-induced vomiting
  • The use of laxatives, enemas or diuretics
  • Periods of binge-eating
  • Refusal to eat
  • Not wanting to eat in public
  • Worries about food or lack of interest
  • Irritability
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Depression or depressed mood
  • Lack of interest in socialising
  • Skipping meals

What causes anorexia?

The cause of anorexia is currently unknown, and it is likely a combination of several factors, including biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Genetics may play a role in the development of anorexia, as it has a greater chance of developing in those with a family history of the condition. Some genetic traits such as perfectionism, and sensitivity are associated with anorexia nervosa.

Psychological factors may also contribute to anorexia, with some who develop the condition exhibiting obsessive-compulsive traits which make it easier for them to stick to routine or a controlled diet. Some may try to control anxiety and other psychological conditions through their anorexia.

Finally, environmental influences also have a part to play in the development of anorexia. Particularly among women, success and self-worth are equated with beauty standards such as being thin.  

What is the treatment?

Treatment for anorexia is not a simple course, as many who have the condition do not wish to seek help. Treatment is given through a combination of factors and resources, including therapy, nutritional education, and medical treatment in cases of severe malnutrition or other related medical complications of anorexia nervosa.

In those with severe cases of anorexia, feeding the patient through a specially-designed tube may be appropriate, as they may refuse to eat, or be severely malnourished.

Treatment for anorexia must focus on different factors. The patient must be brought to a healthy weight and learning about nutrition is a key factor. Patients are often given meal plans and nutrition goals to work to.

As treatment progresses to restore healthy eating habits and proper nutrition, patients may benefit from therapy sessions, including family therapy with younger adults and with teenagers. Ongoing therapy is especially important, as recovering from anorexia is highly stressful, and patients are in need of a great deal of support. 

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