What is Anorexia Nervosa?
Anorexia nervosa, also called anorexia, is a life-threatening eating disorder that causes people to seriously limit their food intake due to an irrational fear of weight gain. Anorexia causes both physical and emotional symptoms. Though many people believe anorexia only affects young women and teenage girls, the truth is that anyone can develop anorexia.
All eating disorders are dangerous, particularly anorexia. Without treatment, anorexia is fatal in approximately 20 percent of the people it affects. With mental health care, the rate drops as low as two percent. If you or someone you love shows symptoms of anorexia, be sure to seek help immediately.
Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa
Without treatment, anorexia takes a toll on both mental and physical health. Mental health symptoms revolve around a person’s disordered body image and fear of weight gain.
This causes the person to engage in unhealthy behaviors around food, such as severe restriction. These disordered behaviors then lead to malnutrition and physical signs of anorexia.
Emotional Symptoms of Anorexia
- Obsessive thoughts about food
- Excessive fear of gaining weight
- Obsessing over perceived flaws in the body
- Social isolation or withdrawal
- Unusual irritability
- Flat affect
- Low self-esteem
Behavioral Symptoms of Anorexia
- Dieting and fasting in extreme ways
- Exercising to excess
- Vomiting or abusing laxatives to lose weight
- Cooking and baking great dishes, but not eating them
- Refusing to eat or making excuses for not eating
- Eating only a few specific foods, which are typically low in calories
- Spitting food out after chewing
- Lying about food intake
Physical Symptoms of Anorexia
- Low body weight
- Loss of menstruation (if applicable)
- Fainting or dizziness
- Signs of dehydration
- Discoloration of fingers, typically bluish
- Irregular heart rate
- Thinning or brittle hair
- Yellowish or dry skin
A note about weight and anorexia: some people with anorexia have average or even high body weights. Only about six percent of people with eating disorders are medically classified as underweight. Furthermore, some people are thin and do not have an eating disorder. While extremely low body weight can be a symptom of anorexia, someone’s size should not be used to diagnose or rule out an eating disorder.
What Causes Anorexia Nervosa?
There’s not a singular cause for anorexia. Instead, there are several biological and social risk factors that make someone more likely to develop the disorder, including:
- Enduring criticism about weight or eating habits
- Having a long history of dieting
- Living with an anxiety disorder
- Having unresolved trauma, particularly sexual abuse
- Having a close biological relative with the disorder
- Having personality traits such as perfectionism
- Experiencing racism and/or homophobia
People can experience many of these risk factors without developing anorexia or any eating disorder. Likewise, someone does not need to have these risk factors in order to develop the disorder.
How is Anorexia Nervosa Treated?
Initial treatment of anorexia nervosa depends on the severity of the disorder at the time of treatment. Anorexia may be treated with a combination of many types of therapy and medication, depending on the patient’s needs.
Some patients may require inpatient treatment with 24-hour care, others may need intensive outpatient programs, and people in the early stages of anorexia may be able to start with outpatient resources. It’s important to have an eating disorder expert assess a person’s condition before deciding on what type of care they need.
Therapy is the gold standard of care for people with anorexia nervosa. The exact types of therapy a person needs may depend on their comfort level, causes for anorexia, and any other comorbid disorders with which they live.
Types of therapy for anorexia include:
- Individual counseling
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
- Group therapy
- Family therapy
- Inpatient treatment centers
- Intensive outpatient programs
Online Therapy for Anorexia
Many of the types of therapy that can help someone with anorexia can be done virtually. Online therapy for anorexia increases access to help for people who may not be able to go to in-person sessions. LifeStance Health offers both in-person and online therapy for people with anorexia.
Medications for Anorexia
There are no approved medications specifically for anorexia. However, many patients take medications as part of their comprehensive mental health care plans. This is because many people who live with anorexia also live with other mental health disorders that can worsen the symptoms of anorexia. A psychiatrist or advanced nurse practitioner may prescribe medication to treat the other conditions, which can lessen the severity of someone’s anorexia symptoms.