Anorexia nervosa can be an extremely debilitating and life threatening disorder if individuals do not seek effective treatment. Research has shown that anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rates among all eating disorder patients. Now more than ever, individuals must recognize that anorexia is a life threatening disorder and needs immediate attention in order to fully nourish and heal the individual’s mind, body, and spirit.
What is Anorexia?
Individuals diagnosed with anorexia nervosa eat very small portions of food or no food at all. This leads to abnormally low body weight that can have detrimental health effects on the individuals. Individuals suffering from anorexia are not eating the appropriate amount of calories and nutrients needed for the body to be healthy.
Often times, they see themselves as being overweight and this feeling ultimately leads to an abnormal amount of fear and worry every time the person eats food. People struggling with their relationship with food often have difficulty coping with environmental stressors, such as people and situations, that trigger the stress response.
What are the Physical Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia?
- Extreme weight loss
- Sunken features
- Feelings of fatigue
- Thinning hair or hair loss
- Absence of menstrual cycle or irregular cycles (Amenorrhea)
- Osteoporosis (weak or brittle bones)
- Brittle fingernails
- Dry hair and skin
- Dizziness or fainting
- Appearance is thin and brittle
What are the Warning Signs of Anorexia?
- Eats a restricted amount of calories or no food at all
- Has an excessive exercise regime
- Obsesses over burning off calories
- Verbalizes fear of feeling or being “fat”
- Denies hunger cues
- Finds excuses to skip meals
- Shows extreme attempts at dieting
- Obsesses with the sugar or fat content of foods
- Displays symptoms of depression or anxiety
- Shows signs of low levels of self-esteem
- Has a distorted body-image
- Feelings of anxiousness towards food
- Declines gatherings that involve food
- Withdraws from previously enjoyed activities or family and friends
What are the Health Consequences of Anorexia?
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, the following are the health consequences of anorexia:
- Slowed heart rate can cause heart failure
- Slowed blood pressure can cause heart failure
- Hair loss
- Growth of lanugo (hair that covers the body)
- Muscles loss
- Feelings of weakness
- Osteoporosis (reduced muscle density causing brittle bones)
- Dehydration can lead to kidney failure
- Feelings of fatigue
- Imbalance of electrolytes
- Insufficient levels of vitamins and nutrients causing malnutrition
- Organ failure
When individuals are malnourished, medical experts will begin the refeeding process to try and restore the absence of vital electrolytes, vitamins, and nutrients. However, when attempting to restore the nutrients to gain back a healthy weight, individuals are susceptible to refeeding syndrome. When patients begin consuming calories again, there can be extreme hormonal and metabolic shifts in the body. The electrolyte and fluid imbalance in the body can lead to low levels of phosphate, potassium and magnesium in the blood. These imbalances in the blood can cause patients to have an irregular heartbeat, respiratory failure, or heart failure.
Recognizing the signs and symptoms of anorexia can help prevent refeeding syndrome by seeking early treatment for a full recovery.
Organic Brain Syndrome
Malnutrition affects every organ in the body, including mental functioning. Patients diagnosed with anorexia nervosa may also be more susceptible to organic brain syndrome in which individuals can experience the following symptoms:
- Chronic brain impairment (dementia)
- Short-term brain impairment (delirium)
Deficient levels of essential vitamins and nutrients can impair mental functioning and can have long-lasting effects on individuals suffering from anorexia. When people suffer from confusion and anxiety, this may lead to unwanted thoughts and continued destructive behaviors. Losing control of situations can lead to feelings of worthlessness and can ultimately cause depression. It is extremely vital that individuals are under the supervision and care of medical experts and Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists.
When individuals are suffering from two psychological disorders, such as anorexia and anxiety, it can be extremely debilitating and can lead to suicidal thoughts if both disorders are not recognized and treated. Over half of all anorexia patients suffer from some type of anxiety disorder, such as obsessive compulsive disorder or social phobia. The obsessive thoughts associated with self-image, caloric intake, and weight gain drive the person to not eat enough food to avoid feeling and looking overweight. This constant need to achieve the ‘ideal body weight’ can further influence individuals to continue their destructive eating habits.
When individuals experience long-lasting feelings of sadness or question their self-worth, they may also be showing signs of depression. Questions of self-worth and feelings of hopelessness can cause individuals to cope by trying to restrict their caloric intake to achieve the ‘ideal body weight’. The obsession over the perfect body weight and self-image can completely overcome a person’s mind and can lead to negative thoughts and behaviors.
Urgency for Treatment
It is devastating that 1 in 5 deaths from anorexia is by suicide. It is absolutely essential that individuals who are silently suffering from anorexia seek the help they deserve and know that they are not alone. The first step in preventing death is for individuals and their family and friends to become aware of the signs, symptoms, and health consequences of anorexia and know that there is a professional team of experts that can help every step of the way. With long-term recovery, individuals can overcome anorexia by cultivating self-compassion and defeating the critical voice inside of their heads.
Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists Can Help
If people do not seek help for anorexia or co-occurring disorder, they can easily be trapped in a cycle of shame and guilt and may have difficulty overcoming their disorder alone. Seeking effective treatment can prevent a multitude of health consequences and can empower individuals to improve their quality of life. Individuals will learn how to create meal plans and will be able to incorporate enjoyable activities in their everyday lives to maintain on a lifelong path of recovery.
Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists help patients find productive coping mechanisms and relaxation techniques that are essential in defeating difficult moments. Additionally, they create an individualized recovery plan for each patient based on their specific needs and goals. With the help of medical experts and the Eating Disorder Recovery Specialist team, patients can fully recover from anorexia and live a meaningful and healthy life again.
Greta Gleissner is the Founder of Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists, a nationwide network of eating disorder treatment specialists that provide meal coaching and recovery skills such as CBT, DBT, ACT, MI, etc. EDRS works alongside treatment programs, teams and families to provide transitional aftercare support for post-residential treatment clients.