What is Anorexia Nervosa?

What is Anorexia Nervosa?

At any given moment, several million individuals could be feeling the effects of a anorexia nervosa  While development of an eating disorder often develops in adolescence and the most common demographic is women between the ages of 12 and 35, anorexia can affect people of any age, gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. In recent years there has been an increase in anorexia in children and middle age individuals. Eating Disorder Hope says that 10 million women and 1 million men in the United States find eating disorders to be a daily struggle. 

According to the American Psychiatric Association,  those who experience anorexia nervosa tend to be overly critical of themselves as well as their bodies. They also may continue to perceive they are overweight even if they are experiencing semi-starvation or even malnutrition, two conditions that are life threatening. Furthermore, those that develop anorexia  may do so in tandem with other psychiatric issues including obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, as well as substance use disorders. 

Diagnostic Criteria for Anorexia Nervosa

Physicians and licensed mental health professionals can diagnose a patient with anorexia nervosa if the individual is experiencing the following hallmarks of the disorder which include:  

  • An intense fear of gaining weight or being “fat”
  • Limited intake of food which leads to significant weight loss

Distorted perception of body image and/or a denial that there is a problem. Those who are experiencing anorexia nervosa severely restrict their food intake and may use compensatory behaviors such as excessive exercise, laxative abuse, and self-induced vomiting, all of which lead to the maintenance of a low weight. With that said, having a low weight is not a requirement of anorexia nervosa. Individuals of all body sizes can suffer from anorexia.  

Possible Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa

As an individual experiencing anorexia nervosa heads towards full-on starvation, they may develop other physical symptoms, including:

  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Ceasing of menstrual periods
  • Severe constipation
  • Dry skin
  • Yellowish skin
  • Osteopenia or osteoporosis (weakening of bones), through a loss of calcium
  • Mild anemia
  • The wasting away of muscles
  • A dip in blood pressure
  • Slowed breathing and pulse rates
  • Depression
  • Lethargy
  • Constant feeling of being cold due to a decrease in internal body temperature

The Mayo Clinic lists behavioral and emotional signs that may come with anorexia nervosa:

  • Refusing to eat
  • Skipping meals often
  • Denying hunger
  • Making excuses for not eating
  • Lying about how much food one has eaten
  • Not wanting to eat in public 
  • A preoccupation with food, which may include cooking elaborate meals for others but not eating the meals themselves
  • Only eating a few “safe” foods, which tend to be low in calories as well as fat
  • Frequently checking for perceived flaws in the mirror
  • A fear of weight gain that may include obsessive measuring of or weighing one’s body
  • Irritability
  • A reduced interest in sex
  • Insomnia
  • A lack of emotion
  • Social withdrawal
  • Covering up using layers of clothing
  • Complaining about being fat or having parts of the body with fat

What Causes Anorexia Nervosa?

While the exact cause remains unknown, the Mayo Clinic speculates that it is likely a disease that comes from a combination of psychological, biological, and environmental factors. There are also several factors that could increase one’s risk of anorexia, including genetics, transitions (such as a move or a new school), and dieting.

How Many People Suffer from Anorexia Nervosa?

According to Eating Disorder Hope, anywhere between 1 and 4.2 percent of women have suffered from anorexia nervosa at some point in her lifetime. And of all the mental illnesses, anorexia nervosa experiences the highest rate of fatalities: about 4% of individuals dealing with the disease die from complications related to it. 

Unfortunately, only about one third of individuals dealing with the disorder here in the United States seek treatment. However, for those who seek treatment and work with a team of professionals who specialize in treating eating disorders such as a physician, psychiatrist, licensed therapist, family therapist, registered dietitian, and recovery specialist, full recovery is possible. If you are experiencing anorexia nervosa or another type of disordered eating, we are here to help you at Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists. You can reach us via phone (866-525-2766), email, or by filling out our contact form.

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