Anorexia is characterized by an obsession to be thin. It may begin with a diet to reduce weight for a sport or because of overweight, or after receiving a negative comment about weight or body shape. When the diet results in weight loss and positive comments from others, dieting behaviors may escalate.
Some teens develop anorexia in relation to extreme stress or a need to feel in control.
Teenagers and adults with anorexia are terrified of gaining weight. They worry constantly about fat grams and calories in food and may use diet pills in order to restrict intake. Excessive exercise-and guilt when unable to exercise excessively-is common. They may check themselves many times a day by looking in the mirror or weighing themselves. In spite of a thin or even emaciated appearance, they believe themselves to be fat.
Over time, severe food restriction may result in bingeing behaviors (excess consumption of food) followed by purging of the food by self-induced vomiting or laxative use. There may be other mental health issues, such as depression and self-harm behaviors such as cutting, burning or hair-pulling.
Physical problems related to anorexic behavior are many. They include dizziness and fainting, cold intolerance, dry skin and hair, growth of fine hair over the body, constipation, stunted growth, heart abnormalities, anemia, kidney problems, changes in brain function, loss of menstrual periods and osteoporosis (weak bones). Over exercise can also lead to stress fractures.
Anorexia occurs in about 1% of the adolescent population and is more common in girls than in boys, perhaps because of greater societal pressures on females to be thin. It may affect children as young as 8 years old but is more common in those from 12-20. It can be very difficult to treat because there are perceived benefits to the behavior, such as safety and structure. Treatment is often prolonged, and only about 50% of those with anorexia fully recover. An additional 30% have residual symptoms throughout life and 20% become chronic, which sometimes results in death from complications or by suicide.
Researchers believe that the shorter period of time between the onset of the anorexia and the initiation of treatment, the greater likelihood of recovery.
Treating Anorexia Nervosa
Anorexia nervosa is a dangerous and potentially deadly disorder that causes afflicted individuals to starve themselves in misguided attempts to achieve their distorted image of “thinness”.
The disorder is marked by extreme weight loss and an unwillingness to maintain a level that health professionals would consider to be even minimally normal for the person’s age, gender, and height. Though it primarily affects teenage girls and young women, anorexia can also occur in men and boys.
Individuals who suffer from anorexia become fixated on body shape and weight, and regardless of how emaciated they become, they remain convinced that they are “fat.” Though they will often attempt to hide the effects of their disorder by withdrawing from friends and family, or by wearing baggy clothing, they actually view their self-starvation as a successful imposition of self-discipline – and any weight gains as personal failures.
Anorexic individuals employ a variety of techniques to control their weight. The following are four of the most common measures anorexics take to avoid gaining even the slightest bit of weight:
- Refusing to eat foods that they believe to be high in calories or fat.
- Restricting their diet to small amounts of a select number of low-calorie foods.
- Bingeing (eating a large amount of food in a short period of time), then immediately purging (expelling the food from their bodies by taking laxatives or forcing themselves to vomit).
- Refusing to eat in the presence of others (to avoid calling attention to their unhealthy eating habits).
Though anorexia first manifests itself as a mental disorder, the malnutrition that results from the condition can inflict significant damage on sufferers’ physical and emotional health. The following are among the possible effects of anorexia:
- Cardiac disease –The most common cause of death in individuals who are suffering from severe cases of anorexia.
- Bradycardia – A dangerous slowing of the heart rate that results from self-starvation.
- Brain Damage – Brain scans of anorexic patients have noted changes in brain structure as well as abnormal activity in parts of the brain. Some of this damage is reversible once an individual resumes a healthy diet, but certain impairments appear to be permanent.
- Dehydration – Can lead to kidney failure, heart failure, seizure, brain damage and death.
- Depression – Physical weakening can exacerbate the body dissatisfaction and self-loathing that are often at the core of anorexia cases. Suicide is believed to be responsible for as many as 50 percent of all anorexia-related deaths.
- Hyponatremia – The opposite of dehydration, drinking too much water can cause fluid in the lungs, brain swelling, nausea, vomiting, confusion, and death.
- Muscle Atrophy – A body that is deprived of essential nutrients will begin feeding on itself, depleting muscle mass (including heart tissue) in the process.
Though anorexia nervosa can cause severe – even deadly – damage to a person’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being, the good news about this disease is that, with proper treatment, recovery is possible. If you suspect that someone you know is struggling with anorexia, do not hesitate to help them get the treatment that they so desperately need.