Anorexia nervosa, often just called anorexia, is a serious medical condition in which people starve themselves due to a distorted perception of their own bodies and an intense fear of gaining weight. People with anorexia always suffer from abnormally low body weight and this is the single factor that separates anorexia from other conditions, like bulimia, in which body weight is average or even above average.

Getting treatment for anorexia is important. Left untreated, anorexia can lead to heart problems, kidney damage, and even death. The sooner the symptoms of anorexia are recognized, the sooner treatment can begin and the less chance there is of lasting health consequences.

Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia

Anorexia is characterized by abnormally low body weight. Anyone with a thin appearance or extreme weight loss may be showing the first signs of anorexia. Because people with anorexia aren’t getting the nutrients they need, they are often fatigued and tired. They may complain of dizziness, faint often, or have intolerance to cold. Other common signs of anorexia include:

.   Abnormal blood counts (anemia),

.   Absence of menstruation (amenorrhea),

.   Bluish discoloration of fingernails,

.   Constipation,

.   Dehydration,

.   Irregular heart rhythms,

.   Osteoporosis and fractures,

.   Soft, downy hair covering the body (lanugo),

.   Swelling of the arms and legs,

.   Thinning hair, and

.   Yellow skin.

Physical symptoms are not the only manifestation of anorexia. Emotional and behavioral signs are common as well. In general, people suffering from anorexia will severely restrict food intake, exercise excessively, may induce vomiting, and are preoccupied with food. Common emotional signs of anorexia include:

.   Denial of hunger,

.   Depressed mood,

  1. Fear of gaining weight,

.   Flat mood,

.   Irritability,

.   Reduced sex drive,

.   Refusal to eat,

.   Social withdrawal, and

.   Thoughts of suicide.

If you suspect someone might have anorexia, look for red-flag behavior such as skipping meals, rigid eating schedules, rituals surrounding food, excessive attention to weight, frequent checking in the mirror, abnormal focus on perceived flaws, avoiding eating in public, calluses on knuckles, and layering clothing to hide true weight.

Causes of Anorexia

Anorexia has no specific known cause, but it seems that genes and environment combine to lead to the condition in most individuals. People who tend toward anxiety and perfectionism are more likely to develop anorexia as are those who are more sensitive to criticism and who are highly persistent in other aspects of life (e.g. getting homework done, completing chores, etc.). The classic description of a “type A” personality defines a person who is more likely to develop anorexia.

Anorexia is more common in individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder, is more common in young women, and is more common in Western cultures. Risk factors for the condition include being female (note that anorexia is becoming increasingly common in boys), being young, having a family history of anorexia, stressful life transitions, and certain sports/activities (e.g. dancing, acting, track, etc.).

Treatment of Anorexia

Anorexia and bulimia treatments are often carried out in an inpatient setting, particularly when individuals have associated complications like severe malnutrition, heart rhythm disorders, and electrolyte abnormalities.  For those who are not in immediate danger, it may be possible to pursue treatment in an outpatient setting. Both inpatient and outpatient treatment solutions are available in St. Louis, MO.

Treatment is based on three things: restoring a healthy weight, medications, and psychotherapy. Restoring weight is the ultimate goal of treatment, but simply getting a person to a healthy weight is not enough, the person needs to recognize that it is healthy and maintain healthy eating behaviors over a life time. To help accomplish these goals, family-based and individual therapy are used to address the underlying causes and triggers of anorexia, to help individuals develop coping mechanisms, and to provide tools for maintaining mental health. Medications are often used to supplement psychological treatment and improve results.

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