Anorexia Nervosa

Dieting and thinness has become a new obsession in Western culture in the past 30 years. While there is nothing wrong with maintaining a healthy lifestyle and losing a few extra pounds, there is a growing trend in North America and Europe of women resorting to extreme measures in order to lose weight. One of the ever-growing forms of "dieting" is anorexia. Anorexia is a severe and chronic eating disorder characterized by self-imposed starvation. If you are suffering from anorexia or know someone who is, find out how you can overcome the disease. Anorexia is life threatening, but there is support and effective treatment for anorexia out there.

What is Anorexia Nervosa?
Anorexia nervosa, commonly referred to as anorexia, is an eating disorder in which the sufferer refuses to maintain a healthy weight. Through starvation, an anorexic will continuously lose weight, eventually causing severe physical and emotional turmoil. An anorexic will have a body weight that is, on average, 15% lower than the expected weight for their age and height.

Women who suffer from anorexia have an extreme fear of being overweight and cannot see that they are actually severely underweight. They will cut back on calories and fat, and may engage in intensive exercise or purging, such as vomiting or using laxatives, in order to lose even more weight. Anorexics will avoid food at all costs, and may skip meals and weigh themselves obsessively to ensure that they do not gain weight. Female anorexics will lose their periods (amenorrhea) unless they are medically forced.

The vast majority of anorexics are women, usually in their adolescent or young adult years. It is thought that between 1% and 2% of women between the ages of 10 and 20 are anorexic. However, anorexia can affect girls as young as 6 and women as old as 76 as well as pregnant women. Men can also become anorexics, although they are few in number. Male anorexia is subject to the same consequences as female anorexia. It is thought that about 5% of all anorexics are male.

Anorexia usually hits after a major life change. Usually, anorexia symptoms begin before puberty or just after. It can also occur after episodes of stress, including physical or sexual abuse, change in schools, having an abortion, divorce, loss of a job, or when children leave the home. Anorexia is a chronic illness that will become worse if treatment is not received. Without treatment, about 20% of chronic anorexics will die. However, treatment for anorexia is highly effective and can help you to overcome the disorder and lead a happy and fulfilling life. In fact, only 2% of treated anorexics succumb to the illness.

Causes of Anorexia
Anorexia causes have only recently been investigated. It seems that there is no one cause of anorexia instead, the disorder is triggered by a combination of many factors:

  • Genetic Factors: Genetic factors like personality seem to be one of the causes of anorexia. People who are perfectionists or prone to anxiety or depression seem to be more likely to develop anorexia. Anorexia also runs in families. Women who have a mother or sister who had the disorder are 12 to 20 times more likely to develop it.
  • Psychological Factors: Psychological factors can trigger anorexia. Women who are sexually or physically abused often develop eating disorders. Women who struggle with their identity or who feel incapable of dealing with change are also at increased risk of becoming anorexic.
  • Social Factors: Cultural beliefs and the media also play a large role in causing eating disorders. The intense pressure on women to be thin seems to have a negative effect on some people. In a recent study, women on the island of Fiji were exposed to Western media and television shows. Before watching these shows, there were few instances of eating disorders on the island. After months of watching Western television though, eating disorder rates skyrocketed.

    Symptoms of Anorexia
    The most obvious sign of anoerxia is an unwillingness to eat and progressive weight loss. Anorexia is also accompanied by major personality changes, including increased isolation, moodiness, and depression. Anorexics have a significantly distorted self-image, seeing themselves as overweight even though they are severely underweight, and may weigh themselves or look in the mirror constantly.

    Food becomes the most important part of an anorexic's life. Anorexia sufferers are often obsessed with food and will read cookbooks, collect recipes, and look at pictures of food in order to satisfy their cravings. Many anorexics insist on cooking for their families but will not eat any of the food they have prepared. Anorexics read food labels and may cut out meat or "high-risk" foods from their diet. Anorexics will skip meals and go to great lengths to hide their disorder. Many anorexics live on low-calorie foods like unbuttered popcorn, lettuce, carrots, and diet soda. Anorexics also tend to engage in strange eating habits, and may cut their food into small pieces, arrange their food in certain ways, or engage in ritualistic eating.

    Anorexia nervosa symptoms can also include bizarre weight loss practices. Many anorexics exercise obsessively, even when they are weak, in order to make up for any food they may have eaten. If exercise cannot be completed, the person will feel extreme guilt. Many anorexics abuse laxatives, diet pills, caffeine pills, and water pills in order to lose weight. Some anorexics may throw up their food after eating (purging) or may chew their food and spit it out before swallowing.

    Anorexics tend to be depressed, but it is unclear if the depression is what causes the anorexia, or if it is merely a symptom of the disorder. In order to express their emotions, anorexics may scream, yell, or throw tantrums. They may also engage in self-mutilation (cutting and burning) or abuse alcohol or drugs. Anorexics tend to be obsessive perfectionists and may engage in strange obsessive-compulsive habits.

    Anorexics will also show extreme physical symptoms that are impossible to disguise. Excessive weight loss, brittle hair and nails, and a yellow pallor to the skin are common in anorexics. Hair may fall out and skin may break out. Fine hair called lanugo will grow over the face and body in order to keep the anorexic warm. These symptoms are signs of chronic anorexia and must be taken seriously. Anyone with these symptoms should contact their health care provider immediately.

    Complications Associated with Anorexia
    The effects of anorexia nervosa are extreme. If left untreated, some of the physical effects of anorexia nervosa can result in death. This includes:

    • irregular heartbeat or cardiac arrest
    • loss of bone mass leading to osteoporosis
    • delayed growth or delayed onset of menstruation
    • infertility due to amenorrhea
    • damage to the esophagus, teeth, and stomach lining
    • anal and bladder incontinence

    Treatments for Anorexia Nervosa
    Treatment for anorexia is an ongoing process but it is proven to be effective. More than 60% of sufferers who receive anorexia treatments will fully recover. 20% will recover, but continue to struggle with eating issues.

    The first step in treatment is to restore health to the anorexic. This is done through weight gain and improved eating habits. Often anorexics will refuse treatment. For some, weight gain will have to be forced, through hospitalization and/or tubal feeding. Once the starvation process is reversed, psychotherapy can begin in order to address the psychological issues behind the eating disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often the treatment of choice. CBT treatment for anorexia nervosa helps to reshape negative thoughts and change behaviors. Group and family therapy is also beneficial as is interpersonal therapy. Anorexics may want to try anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication during their treatment. These medications can help the recovery process and make refeeding less traumatic.

    Places to Go For Help
    Typically, recovery from anorexia takes at least 5 years. However, it is worth it. Recovered anorexics report a sense of freedom and happiness that they never thought they would experience. Many go on to live happy and normal lives, free from worries about weight and shape. If you have anorexia or know someone who does, encourage her to get help. Anorexia does not have to be a lifelong sentence. Look to the following places in order to receive support for your eating disorder:

    • If you are in crisis, visit your nearest emergency room or hospital
    • Speak with your doctor or health care provider. Do not be ashamed they work with eating disorder patients all the time. Your doctor can provide you with a referral for a specialist.
    • If you are going to school, visit your nurse or health center there may be programs that can help you.
    • If you do not have insurance, there are many community service counselors. If you live in the United States, contact the National Eating Disorder Association.
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