Anorexia nervosa, or anorexia for short, is an eating disorder that involves severe food restriction.
People with this disorder have an intense fear of gaining weight. They’re willing to use unhealthy and extreme measures to control their calorie intake.
Sometimes people with anorexia will also exercise compulsively, vomit after eating, use laxatives, take medicine, or binge eat.
Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia
Anorexia causes a wide range of symptoms, which can be physical, emotional, and behavioral.
- Extreme weight loss
- Very low body weight
- Abnormal blood counts
- Fainting or dizziness
- Thin or brittle hair
- Fine hair that covers your body
- Blue fingers
- Dry, blotchy, or yellow skin
- Irregular menstrual periods (in women)
- Feeling cold all the time
- Stomach pain
- Irregular heartbeat
- Low blood pressure
- Swollen joints
- Weak muscles
- Poor memory
- Discolored teeth or other dental issues
- Cuts or calluses on your knuckles (from induced vomiting)
Emotional and Behavioral Symptoms
- Being preoccupied with weight or food
- Eating very little or not eating at all
- Refusing to eat around others
- Lying about how much you eat
- Taking laxatives or diet pills
- Making yourself vomit
- Exercising excessively
- Being irritable or moody
- Withdrawing from social situations
- Wearing layers of clothing to cover up your body
- Weighing yourself constantly
- Complaining about being fat
Causes and Risk Factors of Anorexia
Anyone can have anorexia, but the disorder is more common among girls and women than boys and men.
Girls typically develop anorexia around age 16 or 17. Teenage girls and women in their early twenties have the highest risk.
- Having a close family member with an eating disorder
- Going through a life change (such as starting a new job or the death of a loved one)
- Biological Factors Some people may have genetic differences that put them at risk for anorexia.
- Psychological Factors Anorexia is linked to obsessive-compulsive personality traits and anxiety. People with these psychological conditions may have a higher risk of developing anorexia.
- Environmental Factors Social experiences and cultural expectations may play a role in anorexia.
Anorexia vs. Other Eating Disorders
Anorexia is different from other eating disorders, such as bulimia and binge eating disorder, even though they share some symptoms.
The key difference is people with anorexia don’t eat enough, while those with bulimia and binge eating disorders have episodes of eating large amounts of food and then trying to get rid of the calories.
If you have anorexia, you’re usually underweight. People with bulimia may be normal or above-normal weight.
How Is Anorexia Diagnosed?
Getting a diagnosis is important, so you can start prompt treatment.
Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms, behaviors, and medical history. You’ll probably have a physical exam and additional tests, such as a blood draw or urine test, to rule out other problems.
Prognosis of Anorexia
When it comes to anorexia, your prognosis will depend on the severity of the illness, the treatment you receive, and other factors.
Duration of Anorexia
Treatment and Medication Options for Anorexia
Several treatment options are available to help people with anorexia. Sometimes they’re combined for better results.
- Nutrition Counseling You’ll work with a dietitian or other medical professional to devise an eating plan that will help you reach and maintain a healthy weight.
- Psychotherapy Engaging in “talk therapy” can change your thoughts and behaviors.
- Support Groups Sharing your story with others in a group setting may help your recovery.
- Hospitalization In severe cases, hospitalization is necessary to monitor health problems and help you recover.
Many clinics specialize in treating eating disorders like anorexia. Talk to your doctor about finding the best facility for your needs.
Alternative and Complementary Therapies
Prevention of Anorexia
Complications of Anorexia
Eating disorders can cause serious, even life-threatening, complications if you don’t seek treatment.
but studies estimate that up to 30 percent of people with anorexia attempt suicide. Further, these attempts are more likely to be serious and require medical attention.
- Organ damage
- Heart problems
- Bone loss
- Stomach issues, such as bloating, constipation, or nausea
- Loss of muscle
- Kidney problems
- Electrolyte issues, such low potassium, sodium, and chloride
- Lack of menstrual periods (in women)
- Lower testosterone (in men)
Anorexia and Pregnancy
Anorexia can make it harder for you to get pregnant and may cause problems during pregnancy.
If you lose an extreme amount of weight, you might not ovulate (release an egg from the ovary) each month, which makes it difficult to conceive.
Anorexia can also raise your risk of having a:
- Premature birth
- C-section delivery
- Low-birth-weight baby
Research and Statistics: Who Has Anorexia?
Black Americans and Anorexia
Though it’s often portrayed as a problem that impacts young, white women, anorexia can affect people of all races, ages, ethnicities, and demographics.
Research shows that while Black people are less likely than white people to be diagnosed with anorexia, they may have the disease for a longer period of time.
Related Conditions and Causes of Anorexia
Some health conditions that are closely related to anorexia include:
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) Some people with OCD may also be preoccupied with food and may restrict what they eat.
Depression Many people with depression lose weight due to a loss of appetite and interest in food.
Anxiety Severe anxiety may diminish a person’s appetite or may be focused on fear of gaining weight.
Bulimia Nervosa People with BN are also very concerned about their body shape and gaining weight, but they maintain a minimally normal body weight.
Resources We Love
National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)
NEDA is the largest nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting individuals and families affected by eating disorders, including anorexia.
Eating Disorder Hope offers a host of resources, including online support groups that are led by professional counselors.
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Related Disorders (ANAD)
This association seeks to offer support to help improve the problems associated with eating disorders, especially anorexia and bulimia.
National Alliance for Eating Disorders
This nonprofit provides programs to promote education, outreach, and advocacy for people who are affected by eating disorders.