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Anorexia nervosa

Medically reviewed on February 20, 2018

Overview

Anorexia (an-o-REK-see-uh) nervosa — often simply called anorexia — is an eating disorder characterized by an abnormally low body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of weight. People with anorexia place a high value on controlling their weight and shape, using extreme efforts that tend to significantly interfere with their lives.

To prevent weight gain or to continue losing weight, people with anorexia usually severely restrict the amount of food they eat. They may control calorie intake by vomiting after eating or by misusing laxatives, diet aids, diuretics or enemas. They may also try to lose weight by exercising excessively. No matter how much weight is lost, the person continues to fear weight gain.

Anorexia isn't really about food. It's an extremely unhealthy and sometimes life-threatening way to try to cope with emotional problems. When you have anorexia, you often equate thinness with self-worth.

Anorexia, like other eating disorders, can take over your life and can be very difficult to overcome. But with treatment, you can gain a better sense of who you are, return to healthier eating habits and reverse some of anorexia's serious complications.

Symptoms

The physical signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa are related to starvation. Anorexia also includes emotional and behavioral issues involving an unrealistic perception of body weight and an extremely strong fear of gaining weight or becoming fat.

It may be difficult to notice signs and symptoms because what is considered a low body weight is different for each person, and some individuals may not appear extremely thin. Also, people with anorexia often disguise their thinness, eating habits or physical problems.

Physical symptoms

Physical signs and symptoms of anorexia may include:

  • Extreme weight loss or not making expected developmental weight gains
  • Thin appearance
  • Abnormal blood counts
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Bluish discoloration of the fingers
  • Hair that thins, breaks or falls out
  • Soft, downy hair covering the body
  • Absence of menstruation
  • Constipation and abdominal pain
  • Dry or yellowish skin
  • Intolerance of cold
  • Irregular heart rhythms
  • Low blood pressure
  • Dehydration
  • Swelling of arms or legs
  • Eroded teeth and calluses on the knuckles from induced vomiting

Some people who have anorexia binge and purge, similar to individuals who have bulimia. But people with anorexia generally struggle with an abnormally low body weight, while individuals with bulimia typically are normal to above normal weight.

Emotional and behavioral symptoms

Behavioral symptoms of anorexia may include attempts to lose weight by:

  • Severely restricting food intake through dieting or fasting
  • Exercising excessively
  • Bingeing and self-induced vomiting to get rid of food, which may include the use of laxatives, enemas, diet aids or herbal products

Emotional and behavioral signs and symptoms may include:

  • Preoccupation with food, which sometimes includes cooking elaborate meals for others but not eating them
  • Frequently skipping meals or refusing to eat
  • Denial of hunger or making excuses for not eating
  • Eating only a few certain "safe" foods, usually those low in fat and calories
  • Adopting rigid meal or eating rituals, such as spitting food out after chewing
  • Not wanting to eat in public
  • Lying about how much food has been eaten
  • Fear of gaining weight that may include repeated weighing or measuring the body
  • Frequent checking in the mirror for perceived flaws
  • Complaining about being fat or having parts of the body that are fat
  • Covering up in layers of clothing
  • Flat mood (lack of emotion)
  • Social withdrawal
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Reduced interest in sex

When to see a doctor

Unfortunately, many people with anorexia don't want treatment, at least initially. Their desire to remain thin overrides concerns about their health. If you have a loved one you're worried about, urge her or him to talk to a doctor.

If you're experiencing any of the problems listed above, or if you think you may have an eating disorder, get help. If you're hiding your anorexia from loved ones, try to find a person you trust to talk to about what's going on.

Causes

The exact cause of anorexia is unknown. As with many diseases, it's probably a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors.

  • Biological. Although it's not yet clear which genes are involved, there may be genetic changes that make some people at higher risk of developing anorexia. Some people may have a genetic tendency toward perfectionism, sensitivity and perseverance — all traits associated with anorexia.
  • Psychological. Some people with anorexia may have obsessive-compulsive personality traits that make it easier to stick to strict diets and forgo food despite being hungry. They may have an extreme drive for perfectionism, which causes them to think they're never thin enough. And they may have high levels of anxiety and engage in restrictive eating to reduce it.
  • Environmental. Modern Western culture emphasizes thinness. Success and worth are often equated with being thin. Peer pressure may help fuel the desire to be thin, particularly among young girls.

Risk factors

Anorexia is more common in girls and women. However, boys and men have increasingly developed eating disorders, possibly related to growing social pressures.

Anorexia is also more common among teenagers. Still, people of any age can develop this eating disorder, though it's rare in those over 40. Teens may be more at risk because of all the changes their bodies go through during puberty. They may also face increased peer pressure and be more sensitive to criticism or even casual comments about weight or body shape.

Certain factors increase the risk of anorexia, including:

  • Genetics. Changes in specific genes may put certain people at higher risk of anorexia. Those with a first-degree relative — a parent, sibling or child — who had the disorder have a much higher risk of anorexia.
  • Dieting and starvation. Dieting is a risk factor for developing an eating disorder. There is strong evidence that many of the symptoms of anorexia are actually symptoms of starvation. Starvation affects the brain and influences mood changes, rigidity in thinking, anxiety and reduction in appetite. Starvation and weight loss may change the way the brain works in vulnerable individuals, which may perpetuate restrictive eating behaviors and make it difficult to return to normal eating habits.
  • Transitions. Whether it's a new school, home or job; a relationship breakup; or the death or illness of a loved one, change can bring emotional stress and increase the risk of anorexia.

Complications

Anorexia can have numerous complications. At its most severe, it can be fatal. Death may occur suddenly — even when someone is not severely underweight. This may result from abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias) or an imbalance of electrolytes — minerals such as sodium, potassium and calcium that maintain the balance of fluids in your body.

Other complications of anorexia include:

  • Anemia
  • Heart problems, such as mitral valve prolapse, abnormal heart rhythms or heart failure
  • Bone loss (osteoporosis), increasing the risk of fractures
  • Loss of muscle
  • In females, absence of a period
  • In males, decreased testosterone
  • Gastrointestinal problems, such as constipation, bloating or nausea
  • Electrolyte abnormalities, such as low blood potassium, sodium and chloride
  • Kidney problems

If a person with anorexia becomes severely malnourished, every organ in the body can be damaged, including the brain, heart and kidneys. This damage may not be fully reversible, even when the anorexia is under control.

In addition to the host of physical complications, people with anorexia also commonly have other mental health disorders as well. They may include:

  • Depression, anxiety and other mood disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorders
  • Alcohol and substance misuse
  • Self-injury, suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts

Prevention

There's no guaranteed way to prevent anorexia nervosa. Primary care physicians (pediatricians, family physicians and internists) may be in a good position to identify early indicators of anorexia and prevent the development of full-blown illness. For instance, they can ask questions about eating habits and satisfaction with appearance during routine medical appointments.

If you notice that a family member or friend has low self-esteem, severe dieting habits and dissatisfaction with appearance, consider talking to him or her about these issues. Although you may not be able to prevent an eating disorder from developing, you can talk about healthier behavior or treatment options.

Diagnosis

If your doctor suspects that you have anorexia nervosa, he or she will typically do several tests and exams to help pinpoint a diagnosis, rule out medical causes for the weight loss, and check for any related complications.

These exams and tests generally include:

  • Physical exam. This may include measuring your height and weight; checking your vital signs, such as heart rate, blood pressure and temperature; checking your skin and nails for problems; listening to your heart and lungs; and examining your abdomen.
  • Lab tests. These may include a complete blood count (CBC) and more-specialized blood tests to check electrolytes and protein as well as functioning of your liver, kidney and thyroid. A urinalysis also may be done.
  • Psychological evaluation. A doctor or mental health professional will likely ask about your thoughts, feelings and eating habits. You may also be asked to complete psychological self-assessment questionnaires.
  • Other studies. X-rays may be taken to check your bone density, check for stress fractures or broken bones, or check for pneumonia or heart problems. Electrocardiograms may be done to look for heart irregularities.

Your mental health professional also may use the diagnostic criteria for anorexia in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association.

Treatment

Treatment for anorexia is generally done using a team approach, which includes doctors, mental health professionals and dietitians, all with experience in eating disorders. Ongoing therapy and nutrition education are highly important to continued recovery.

Here's a look at what's commonly involved in treating people with anorexia.

Hospitalization and other programs

If your life is in immediate danger, you may need treatment in a hospital emergency room for such issues as a heart rhythm disturbance, dehydration, electrolyte imbalances or a psychiatric emergency. Hospitalization may be required for medical complications, severe psychiatric problems, severe malnutrition or continued refusal to eat.

Some clinics specialize in treating people with eating disorders. They may offer day programs or residential programs rather than full hospitalization. Specialized eating disorder programs may offer more-intensive treatment over longer periods of time.

Medical care

Because of the host of complications anorexia causes, you may need frequent monitoring of vital signs, hydration level and electrolytes, as well as related physical conditions. In severe cases, people with anorexia may initially require feeding through a tube that's placed in their nose and goes to the stomach (nasogastric tube).

Care is usually coordinated by a primary care doctor or a mental health professional, with other professionals involved.

Restoring a healthy weight

The first goal of treatment is getting back to a healthy weight. You can't recover from anorexia without returning to a healthy weight and learning proper nutrition. Those involved in this process may include:

  • Your primary care doctor, who can provide medical care and supervise your calorie needs and weight gain
  • A psychologist or other mental health professional, who can work with you to develop behavioral strategies to help you return to a healthy weight
  • A dietitian, who can offer guidance getting back to regular patterns of eating, including providing specific meal plans and calorie requirements that help you meet your weight goals
  • Your family, who will likely be involved in helping you maintain normal eating habits

Psychotherapy

These types of therapy may be beneficial for anorexia:

  • Family-based therapy. This is the only evidence-based treatment for teenagers with anorexia. Because the teenager with anorexia is unable to make good choices about eating and health while in the grips of this serious condition, this therapy mobilizes parents to help their child with re-feeding and weight restoration until the child can make good choices about health.
  • Individual therapy. For adults, cognitive behavioral therapy — specifically enhanced cognitive behavioral therapy — has been shown to help. The main goal is to normalize eating patterns and behaviors to support weight gain. The second goal is to help change distorted beliefs and thoughts that maintain restrictive eating.

Medications

No medications are approved to treat anorexia because none has been found to work very well. However, antidepressants or other psychiatric medications can help treat other mental health disorders you may also have, such as depression or anxiety.

Treatment challenges in anorexia

One of the biggest challenges in treating anorexia is that people may not want treatment. Barriers to treatment may include:

  • Thinking you don't need treatment
  • Fearing weight gain
  • Not seeing anorexia as an illness but rather a lifestyle choice

People with anorexia can recover. However, they're at increased risk of relapse during periods of high stress or during triggering situations. Ongoing therapy or periodic appointments during times of stress may help you stay healthy.

Lifestyle and home remedies

When you have anorexia, it can be difficult to take care of yourself properly. In addition to professional treatment, follow these steps:

  • Stick to your treatment plan. Don't skip therapy sessions and try not to stray from meal plans, even if they make you uncomfortable.
  • Talk to your doctor about appropriate vitamin and mineral supplements. If you're not eating well, chances are your body isn't getting all of the nutrients it needs, such as Vitamin D or iron. However, getting most of your vitamins and minerals from food is typically recommended.
  • Don't isolate yourself from caring family members and friends who want to see you get healthy. Understand that they have your best interests at heart.
  • Resist urges to weigh yourself or check yourself in the mirror frequently. These may do nothing but fuel your drive to maintain unhealthy habits.

Alternative medicine

Dietary supplements and herbal products designed to suppress the appetite or aid in weight loss may be abused by people with anorexia. Weight-loss supplements or herbs can have serious side effects and dangerously interact with other medications. These products do not go through a rigorous review process and may have ingredients that are not posted on the bottle.

Keep in mind that natural doesn't always mean safe. If you use dietary supplements or herbs, discuss the potential risks with your doctor.

Anxiety-reducing approaches that complement anorexia treatment may increase the sense of well-being and promote relaxation. Examples of these approaches include massage, yoga and meditation.

Coping and support

You may find it difficult to cope with anorexia when you're hit with mixed messages by the media, culture, and perhaps your own family or friends. You may even have heard people joke that they wish they could have anorexia for a while so that they could lose weight.

Whether you have anorexia or your loved one has anorexia, ask your doctor or mental health professional for advice on coping strategies and emotional support. Learning effective coping strategies and getting the support you need from family and friends are vital to successful treatment.

Preparing for an appointment

Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment and know what to expect from your doctor or mental health professional.

You may want to ask a family member or friend to go with you. Someone who accompanies you may remember something that you missed or forgot. A family member may also be able to give your doctor a fuller picture of your home life.

What you can do

Before your appointment, make a list of:

  • Any symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for the appointment. Try to recall when your symptoms began.
  • Key personal information, including any major stresses or recent life changes.
  • All medications, vitamins, herbal products, over-the-counter medications and other supplements that you're taking, and their dosages.
  • Questions to ask your doctor so that you'll remember to cover everything you wanted to.

Some questions you might want to ask your doctor or mental health professional include:

  • What kinds of tests do I need? Do these tests require any special preparation?
  • Is this condition temporary or long lasting?
  • What treatments are available, and which do you recommend?
  • Is there a generic alternative to the medicine you're prescribing?
  • Are there any brochures or other printed material that I can have? What websites do you recommend?

Don't hesitate to ask other questions during your appointment.

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor or mental health professional is likely to ask you a number of questions, including:

  • How long have you been worried about your weight?
  • Do you exercise? How often?
  • What ways have you used to lose weight?
  • Are you having any physical symptoms?
  • Have you ever vomited because you were uncomfortably full?
  • Have others expressed concern that you're too thin?
  • Do you think about food often?
  • Do you ever eat in secret?
  • Have any of your family members ever had symptoms of an eating disorder or been diagnosed with an eating disorder?

Be ready to answer these questions to reserve time to go over any points you want to focus on.

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