What is Anorexia Nervosa?
Anorexia nervosa, also just known as anorexia, is a serious mental illness. An individual often begins to worry about their weight and shape, and develops a wish to loose weight. This can often occur even when the person is slim already. They can then become obsessed with maintaining a low weight by dieting, vomiting, using laxatives or excessively exercising. People with anorexia will often not believe other people who say they need to gain weight and will continue to think that they are fat even when they are dangerously underweight. They also often try to hide their symptoms from other people.
Anorexia is more common in girls and women, but in recent years, the diagnoses of boys and men has becoming increasingly common.
On average, the condition first develops at around the age of 16 to 17, although much younger children can develop an eating disorder.
As with other eating disorders, anorexia can be associated with depression, low self-esteem, alcohol misuse and self-harm.
What causes it?
There is no known individual cause for anorexia. We know that some common factors can include a poor self-image where the individual sees themselves differently to how other people see them. Others include: pressures from other people such as bullying about body shape; magazines and other media which reinforce the idea that only thin people can be beautiful; stressful life events or work pressure; hormonal changes in puberty. Personality factors and genetic factors could also contribute to developing anorexia. Anorexia usually begins as a diet which spirals out of control.
What are the symptoms?
Some behaviours that people with anorexia might have:
- Fear of getting fat and a desire to be thin
- Obsession with weight
- Poor self image – Think that they are overweight even when they are underweight
- Lying about what they’ve eaten
- Not being truthful about how much they weigh
- Obsession with food
- Strict dieting
- Calorie counting
- Avoiding any food they think is “fattening”
- Missing meals (fasting)
- Cutting food into tiny pieces – to make it less obvious they have eaten little and to make food easier to swallow
- Taking appetite suppressants, such as slimming or diet pills
- Excessive exercising
- Vomiting or misusing laxatives (purging)
- Shutting yourself off from the world
There are also physical changes in people with anorexia such as: severe weight loss; in girls and women, periods stop or are irregular (amenorrhea); sleeping problems; feeling cold; growth of downy (soft and fine) hair all over your body (called Lanugo); hair loss; mood swings; difficulty concentrating and weak muscles. It can also affect the way our body fights infection meaning people are more likely to become unwell physically.
There may also be long term effects of anorexia if it is not treated such as starvation effects throughout the organs of the body; delayed puberty and physical development; loss of bone density and tooth decay (if there is purging). Very low body weight can affect the way the heart functions, and if the young person is not treated then there is a risk that they could die.
How is it diagnosed?
If you think that a friend may have anorexia it is important to talk to them first and encourage them to seek help. They may not want to listen to you or be defensive, but it’s important not to criticise or pressure them as this can make things worse.
If you think you may have anorexia, you could start by talking to a person you trust, such as a member of your family or a friend, and perhaps ask them to go with you to see your GP.
Your GP will look at your weight for your age and might monitor significant weight changes, ask about concerns you have over your weight or body shape, talk about eating disorder behaviours and might also take some blood for testing. If your GP thinks you might have an eating disorder they should refer you for an assessment and possible treatment by a person who has specialist eating disorder knowledge.
How is it treated?
The most important factor in eating disorder treatment is to ensure that a person is eating and drinking enough to stay alive. In some cases this means a period of increased oral intake is required, often supported either by the persons family (Family Based Therapy) or by specialist nurses. Once the person is eating more, psychological treatments such as cognitive analytic therapy (CAT), cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), interpersonal therapy (IPT), focal psychodynamic therapy and family therapy might be recommended for someone diagnosed with anorexia. These are designed to help psychological recovery from the behaviours of anorexia.
At the same time, physical health will also be monitored. Some people diagnosed with anorexia may be prescribed medication as a part of their treatment plan.
Most of the time treatment for anorexia can be done from home. However, if the person with anorexia is thought to be at serious risk they might be recommended for inpatient or day patient treatment which means you will have to stay in hospital or a specialist eating disorder clinic.
Want to know more?
Want to know more?