Anorexia, or anorexia nervosa, is an eating disorder that is commonly diagnosed in teenage girls, but can also occur in adolescent boys, and adult men and women.
Anorexics are consumed with the idea of being thin and may have a pathological fear of gaining weight. In most cases, anorexia nervosa leads to some form of malnutrition or other health problems.
Eating Disorders and Anorexia
Eating disorders are defined as an obsession with food and weight that directly leads to harm to the patient’s daily life, FamilyDoctor.org explains. Many people worry over their weight, but people suffering from an eating disorder go to extremes to avoid weight gain. There are two main types of eating disorders – anorexia nervosa and bulimia.
Anorexics rarely eat and when they do, they only eat small amounts. They constantly worry about their caloric intake and how much fat they consume. People suffering from anorexia nervosa often believe they are overweight or obese, even when they are thin or severely underweight. Anorexics often get so thin that they look sick.
You must be aware that anorexia is not only a physical problem, but a psychological one as well. Anorexics often use their obsession with food and weight to help deal with underlying emotional distress. Often dealing with the root emotional problems helps treat anorexia nervosa in the long term.
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There is no one factor that causes anorexia. Most healthcare professionals believe that eating disorders are medical illnesses that affect the patient’s mind and body.
Possible factors that contribute to the development of anorexia nervosa include:
Family. Having a family member with anorexia greatly increases the risk of developing the disease. Also, if parents constantly criticize their children about their weight and their bodies, the children are more likely to have anorexia in the future.
Culture. Americans, especially women, are under constant pressure to be like thin, flawless models found in magazines, television advertisements and movies. This makes it difficult for anorexics to feel good about their bodies and often drives them to more severe forms of the disease.
Life events. Powerful events are capable of driving a person to anorexia. Traumatic events, such as rape or assault, and stressful events, like losing a job or a bad breakup, are situations that may lead to anorexia.
Personality. People prone to anorexia often have low self-esteem, hate their body and feel hopeless. Anorexics often set unrealistic goals and feel enormous guilt when they fail to accomplish those goals.
Genetics. Some people may be at risk for anorexia nervosa due to genetic, hormonal or chemical factors. The full impact of these factors in the genesis of anorexia has yet to be established.
How Anorexia Affects the Body
Anorexia causes damage to the brain and nerves. Anorexics are often confused or suffer from poor judgment; they are often sad, irritable and moody. They may have bad memories and suffer permanent changes in brain chemistry.
Anorexics often have dermatological problems. Their hair often becomes thin and brittle. The skin of an anorexic tends to bruise easily, become yellow and be very dry. They tend to grow fine hair all over the body and have brittle nails.
Most of the body’s major organs are also damaged by anorexia. Anorexics suffer from low blood pressure, slow heart rate, irregular heart rate and heart failure, WomensHealth.gov warns.
Anorexics also develop anemia and low levels of potassium, magnesium and sodium. Anorexia also causes weakness in the muscles, swelling of the joints, bone loss, frequent fractures and osteoporosis.
One last effect of anorexia lies within the disease’s ability to interfere with normal hormone function. Women may miss periods or stop menstruating. They also may have problems getting pregnant. All anorexics have problems growing and may have difficulty maturing sexually.
Signs and Symptoms
There are certain signs that are unique to anorexia. Identifying these symptoms aids in the diagnosis of anorexia and helps speed treatment.
Listed below are some of the possible symptoms of anorexia nervosa:
Use of water pills and laxatives
Taking diet pills
Not eating at meals or only eating small amounts of food
Exercising despite injury or inclement weather
Obsessive counting of calories or weighing of food
Attempting to hide that they are not eating (e.g., by playing with their food instead of eating it)
Weighing themselves many times a day
Fear of gaining weight
These are some of the obvious signs linked to anorexia; however, the condition can cause subtle behavioral changes that are difficult to notice. Relatives and friends may notice that the anorexic is talking about weight constantly and will refuse to eat in front of others. Anorexics may suffer from depression, obsessive-compulsive behavior, anxiety and substance abuse.
Characteristics and Diagnosis
Medical professionals look for certain characteristics before they diagnose anorexia nervosa. Patients must have a deep fear of gaining weight or becoming fat. Anorexics also refuse to stay at the appropriate weight for their height and are normally 15 percent or more below the average body weight.
One of the most common characteristics of anorexics is a distorted body image. This means that they believe they are overweight or fat despite being severely thin. Anorexics are focused, almost exclusively, on their body weight or shape. They refuse to acknowledge the effects of serious weight loss and avoid talking about their health problems.
To properly diagnose and evaluate the severity of anorexia, doctors perform a number of exams, the Mayo Clinic explains.
Physical. Physicians will measure the patient’s height and weight, check vital signs (heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature), look for skin or nail abnormalities, and inspect the heart, lungs and abdomen.
Laboratory tests. Anorexics require a complete blood count (CBC), liver function tests, kidney function tests and a thyroid hormone level exam. A urinalysis should also be done to check for kidney function and electrolyte levels.
Specific tests. A doctor may order an x-ray to determine if the anorexic patient suffers from bone weakness. Electrocardiograms (ECG) are ordered to look for heart damage or disease.
Psychological assessment. Anorexics undergo thorough psychiatric evaluations that determine the patient’s thoughts, eating habits and stress-coping mechanisms
From the results of these tests, doctors can determine the severity of the disease and recommend the best course of treatment.
Anorexia nervosa is associated with several potentially dangerous complications. In some cases, the anorexic will need hospitalization.
In late-stage anorexics, there can be severe bloating or swelling. This swelling, or edema, is caused by damage to the tissues and blood vessels. Edema may also be caused by a protein or electrolyte imbalance that is present in malnourished anorexics.
Severe dehydration and malnutrition are possible consequences of anorexia. Anorexics rarely get enough nutrients to support their body. This can lead to weak bones, dangerous heart rhythms, and damage to the kidneys or liver, according to MedlinePlus. Fluid loss and electrolyte imbalances may also cause seizures and muscle tremors. The main danger of anorexia is severe malnutrition that leads to muscle wasting. The body needs energy and normally it gets this energy from food. If there is no food available, the body can temporarily break down fat and muscle for energy. The body of an anorexic has been deprived of energy for so long, it has begun to break down vital organs as a source of energy.
Anorexia often causes problems with production of certain important hormones. First, anorexics will have a decreased production of white blood cells. These cells are responsible for the function of much of the body’s immune system. This increases the risk of developing a serious infection. Secondly, anorexia damages the thyroid gland and causes a decrease in thyroid hormones. This problem with the thyroid causes an inability to tolerate the cold as well as persistent constipation.
Role of Interventions
Prompt treatment is the best way to stave off the long-term effects of anorexia; however, many anorexic patients do not want to acknowledge the disease and are reluctant to seek treatment. Despite their failing health and other social problems, anorexics still believe they are fat and ugly.
Once patients see the effects of anorexia on their lives and the lives of all their loved ones, they may decide to seek treatment. Some interventionists handle substance abuse cases only, so be certain to ask whether the interventionist you choose has the proper experience and certification to conduct an eating disorder intervention.
In some cases, the anorexic may need time to accept the emotions stirred up by the intervention. In time, the person with anorexia may decide to talk to a healthcare professional and begin their journey to a healthy life.