Many people with anorexia nervosa see themselves as overweight, even when they are starved or are clearly malnourished. Eating, food and weight control become obsessions. A person with anorexia nervosa typically weighs herself or himself repeatedly, portions food carefully, and eats only very small quantities of only certain foods. According to some studies, people with anorexia nervosa are up to ten times more likely to die as a result of their illness compared to those without the disorder. The most common complications that lead to death are cardiac arrest, and electrolyte and fluid imbalances and suicide. Many people with anorexia nervosa also have coexisting psychiatric and physical illnesses, including depression, anxiety, obsessive behavior, substance abuse, cardiovascular and neurological complications, and impaired physical development.
Learn about Anorexia Nervosa
Risk Factors for Anorexia Nervosa
Sex: Anorexia is more common in girls and women. However, boys and men have been increasingly developing eating disorder.
Age: Although people of any age can develop an eating disorder, Anorexia is more common among teenagers. Teenagers may be more susceptible because of all of the changes their bodies go through during puberty. They also may face increased peer pressure and may be more sensitive to criticism or even casual comments about weight or body shape.
Family History: A person with a biological sibling or parent with an eating disorder has a higher risk of developing the disease.
Weight Changes: When people lose or gain weight — on purpose or unintentionally — those changes may be reinforced by positive comments from others if weight was lost, or by negative comments if there was a weight gain. Such changes and comments may trigger someone to start dieting to an extreme.
Life Changes: 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 distress and increase the risk of anorexia nervosa.
Occupation: Athletes, actors and television personalities, dancers, and models are at higher risk of anorexia. For some professions, thinness may even be a professional requirement. Sports associated with anorexia include running, wrestling, skiing, figure skating and gymnastics. Professional men and women may believe they will improve their performance by losing weight, and then take it to an extreme. Coaches and parents may inadvertently raise the risk by suggesting that young athletes lose weight.
Media and Society: The media, such as television and fashion magazines, frequently feature a parade of skinny models and actors. But whether the media merely reflect social values or actually drive them isn’t clear-cut. In any case, these images may seem to equate thinness with success and popularity.
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What Are The Causes Of Anorexia?
The exact cause of anorexia is difficult to identify, because it usually involves a merging of internal and external influences. Although a complex disease, experts believe that the causes of anorexia nervosa are attributed to a combination of genetics, personality, and environmental factors.
Biological Causes of Anorexia
Research shows that individuals with anorexia nervosa may be biologically predisposed to develop the illness. In fact, a person will be up to twenty times more likely to develop anorexia if another family member has developed anorexia, especially a first-degree relative. The biological similarity between family members that contributes to anorexia nervosa development lies in the chemistry of the brain. Individuals who develop anorexia typically have very high levels of cortisol in their brains, which is passed on in genetic makeup. Cortisol is the hormone that is highly related to anxiety and stress. The cortisol chemical imbalance in the brain explains why people with anorexia typically possess similar character traits like perfectionism, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and low self-worth. The biological causes of anorexia are still under investigation.
Psychological Causes of Anorexia
Aside from the biological roots of anorexia, researchers believe there are psychological and emotional causes that contribute to the development of anorexia nervosa, as well. Individuals who develop anorexia are inclined to have similar personality traits that can contribute to the illness, likely due to the presence of high levels of cortisol in the brain. People who suffer from anorexia tend to be perfectionists with exceedingly high standards in all areas of life. These high expectations can easily lead to feelings of self-criticism and low self-esteem when standards are not met. Psychologically, individuals living with anorexia sometimes view their eating habits as a routine that can be controlled, giving them satisfaction and temporary relief from anxiety.
Environmental Causes of Anorexia
Another very influential and controversial cause of anorexia development comes from environmental factors. The most obvious environmental cause originates from our Western culture that glorifies and objectifies thin or muscular bodies in magazines, commercials, movies and other forms of media. Although the image of beauty by cultural standards changes all the time, bodily thinness is a physical trait that media has adorned for many decades. Although this standard of beauty is unhealthy and unrealistic for most to achieve, many young women and an increasing number of young men can turn to anorexia to try to attain the slim figure that is so frequently glamorized by media. It is commonly debated that another very powerful external cause of anorexia development is the influence of family and friends. Peer pressure is a very dominant force in everyone’s life, young and old. As kids, we are conditioned to seek validation and reward from those close in our life to learn how to behave. When family and social pressures become too dominant in an individual’s life, they can often lend themselves to unhealthy coping mechanisms, like anorexia.
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What Are The Symptoms Of Anorexia?
Anorexia nervosa is a complex mental illness that causes individuals to restrict their food intake due to an irrational fear of eating that can develop from a combination of internal and external influences. Because the nature of the disease tends to be private and controlled, it can sometimes be difficult to observe the symptoms of anorexia nervosa in a close friend or family member. The most noticeable symptoms of anorexia can be seen in an individual’s physical appearance and behavior patterns.
Because the body is in a state of starvation, it is denied essential nutrients and supplements it needs to function normally. As a result, the body is forced to slow its operations in order to conserve energy. It is in this slowing down process that the body undergoes several negative physical side effects and health complications. Most of the physical symptoms associated with anorexia nervosa are characterized by dramatic weight loss and overall weakness that affects the entire body. Due to a lack of nutrients and hydration, hair and nails quickly become dry, weak and brittle. The skin, too, becomes dry, yellow and more susceptible to bruising and discoloration. Anorexia nervosa can even cause lanugo, which is the growth of fine hairs all over the body and face in an effort to maintain body heat. In some extreme cases of anorexia nervosa, individuals can develop anemia, a slowed heart rate, kidney failure, severely low blood pressure, and loss in bone density. For females, anorexia nervosa can cause several complications with pregnancy including low birth weight and miscarriage. For males, it can cause decreased testosterone.
- Extreme weight loss
- Refusal to maintain body weight of at least 85% of normal expected weight
- Thin appearance
- Abnormal blood counts
- Dizziness or fainting
- Brittle nails
- Hair that thins, breaks or falls out
- Growth of fine hair covering the body
- Absence of menstruation in women
- Dry skin
- Intolerance of cold
- Irregular and slow heart rhythms
- Low blood pressure
- Swelling of arms or legs
Individuals who are victim to anorexia nervosa live with anxiety when it comes to their eating rituals and body image. Although a very complex disease, anorexia nervosa typically derives from a combination of biological and environmental factors that severely affect an individual’s self-image in a negative way. This poor self-esteem causes those living with anorexia to constantly worry about their diet and exercise regimes to gain control of emotions and decrease stress levels. Anorexia is typically a very private and sensitive matter that is purposefully hidden from friends and family members. Other behavioral symptoms include:
- Obsession with tracking calories, fat and sugar
- Lying about food intake
- Preoccupation with cooking food for others, reading food books, or preparing meals and eating very little
- Engaging in secret food rituals that could involve chewing food and spitting it out, using the same plate for food, or cutting food in a meticulous way
- Dieting or compulsive exercise regimens despite already being thin
- Severe mood swings
- Refusal to eat
- Denial of hunger
- Excessive exercise
- Flat mood, or lack of emotion
- Social withdrawal
- Preoccupation with food
- Reduced interest in sex
- Possible use of herbal products or diet aids
- Overall feelings of stress, anxiety and depression