What is anorexia nervosa?
People who intentionally starve themselves or severely restrict their food intake suffer from an eating disorder called anorexia nervosa. The disorder, which usually begins in young people around the time of puberty, involves extreme weight loss -- at least 15 percent below a young woman’s normal body weight. Those experiencing anorexia nervosa also have an intense fear of becoming fat, even though they are underweight. Many people with the disorder look emaciated but are convinced that they are overweight. Sometimes they must be hospitalized to prevent starvation, yet they often continue to deny the condition. Food and weight become obsessions. For some, the compulsiveness shows up in strange eating rituals or the refusal to eat in front of others. It is not uncommon for people with anorexia to collect recipes and prepare lavish gourmet feast for family and friends, but not partake in the meals themselves. They may adhere to strict exercise routines to keep off weight. Ninety percent of all anorexics are women.
What are the causes of anorexia nervosa?
The exact cause of anorexia nervosa remains unknown. People with anorexia may believe that they would be happier and more successful if they were thin. Anorexics tend to be perfectionists. They want everything in their lives to be perfect. People suffering from this illness are typically good students and are involved in many school and community activities. They tend to blame themselves if things in their life are less than perfect. Many anorexics suffer from errors in thinking or perceptions. They incorrectly believe they need to lose weight to find happiness. Body image distortions are common place among anorexics. Others have had difficulties in relationships and manifest these problems through their eating habits. Anorexia can also be the delayed result of unresolved conflicts or painful experiences from childhood.
What problems are associated with anorexia?
There are many side effects of anorexia nervosa. Girls with anorexia usually stop having menstrual periods; this is a condition called amenorrhea. Anorexia may lead to dry skin and thinning hair. Anorexics may have a growth of fine hair all over their body as a natural defense mechanism against extreme weight loss. People suffering from anorexia may feel cold and are easily susceptible to illness. Mood swings are typical. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that one in ten anorexic cases ends in death from starvation, suicide or medical complications like heart attacks or kidney failure. Physical problems also include anemia, heart palpitations, bone loss, tooth decay, as well as inflammation of the esophagus.
What is the treatment for anorexia?
Anorexia is a mental problem manifested in a physical form. Treatment for any eating disorder should include both a mental health professional as well as a primary health care physician. Essential components of successful treatments are ongoing medical care, regular therapy, nutritional counseling, and possibly medication. Eating disorders can be treated with antidepressants, however, this is less effective for anorexia nervosa. Physicians help monitor bone density loss and hear heart rhythm disturbances. Psychologists help identify the important issues and replace destructive thoughts and behaviors with more positive ones. Support groups also play a role in treating anorexia. Often groups of patients will meet weekly to discuss their fears and help each other recover. Most cases of anorexia can be treated successfully, but not instantly. For many patients, treatments may need to be long-term.
What are some of the warning signs of anorexia?
Possible warning signs include:
Deliberate self-starvation with weight loss
Intense fear of gaining weight
Refusal to eat
Denial of hunger
Greater amounts of hair on the body or the face
Sensitivity to cold
Absent or irregular periods
Loss of scalp hair
A self-perception of being fat when the person is already too thin
How can family and friends help?
The most important thing that family and friends can do to help a person with anorexia is to unconditionally love them. Talk to physicians and/or counselors for help in determining the best way to approach and deal with the situation. People with anorexia will beg and lie to avoid eating and gaining weight; it means giving up the illness and giving up the control. Family and friends should not give in to the pleadings of an anorexic patient, but should not nag them incessantly. Anorexia is an illness that can not be controlled by simple willpower - but rather needs professional guidance. Most important, support the individual without supporting their actions.