Anorexia nervosa, commonly called anorexia, is an eating disorder with lifelong effects. It is most common among teenaged females, although both males and females of any age, race, or demographic may struggle with this condition. Anorexia can even start as a healthy weight loss plan for an overweight individual that is taken too far. There are many signs and symptoms of anorexia. It is important to understand that if you believe you struggle with anorexia or any of its symptoms, you should talk with someone you trust and ask them to help you get the medical attention you need.
The warning signs of anorexia include:
- Strange food-related behaviors
- Continuous or obsessive dieting (when not overweight)
- Compulsive exercise or being overly active
- Frequent weighing, often several times a day
- Preoccupation with food, calories, nutrition, and/or cooking
- Refusal to eat or highly restrictive eating
- Negative body image – believing they are “fat” when not
- Deliberate self-starvation with weight loss (rapid)
- Intense, persistent fear of gaining weight
- Denial of hunger
- Absent or irregular menstruation
- May have episodes of binge eating
- Sensitive to cold
- Excessive facial or body hair
- Hair loss (due to inadequate protein)
- Slowness of thought or memory difficulties
Anorexia nervosa (AN) is a medical diagnosis. People diagnosed with AN meet the following basic criteria:
- Low body weight with refusal to maintain normal weight or gain weight, specifically a body mass index (BMI) less than 18.5 or 15% or more below ideal weight for height.
- Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even if underweight.
- Body dissatisfaction.
- Amennorhea – a condition describing a female who has stopped menstruating, diagnosed when she has missed 3 or more periods.
There are two types of AN: restrictive-type and binge/purge-type. Restrictive-type AN involves extremely restrictive eating behaviors. These patients may only consume two hundred calories per day when they need two thousand. Binge/purge-type AN involves restrictive eating with eating binges – larger than normal amounts, often of one food – and purging to compensate – vomiting, laxatives, or even extreme exercise. Many people think that if bingeing and purging are involved that it is bulimia, but there is a different set of diagnostic criteria for bulimia. It is important to remember that to be diagnosed with AN, a person must meet all of the above criteria. However, it is also important to note that if a person does not have an eating disorder it does not mean that he or she does not have disordered eating. You can have disordered eating without having an eating disorder.
There are many complications resulting from anorexia nervosa, including mental disorders, skeletal problems, endocrine issues, digestive conditions, and heart conditions. The following conditions are complications of AN:
- Difficulty concentrating/focusing
- Difficulty regulating moods
- Osteoporosis, even at a young age
- Increased risk of stress fractures (broken bones)
- Stunted growth
- Thyroid abnormalities
- Low energy/fatigue
- Impaired body temperature regulation – low body temp.
- Cold intolerance
- Hair thinning and/or falling out from the head
- Fine body hair (attempt to heat body)
- Erosion of digestive linings from mouth to intestines (irritation due to vomiting and/or laxatives)
- Slowing of the digestive tract due to restrictive eating
- Chronic constipation and irregular bowel movements
- Slow, irregular pulse
- Low blood pressure
- Dizziness and faintness
- Shortness of breath
- Heart arrhythmias
- Cardiac arrest (heart attack) – may happen years after AN behavior
These effects can be long-lasting, but it is important to know that one can fully recover from anorexia. The longer that a person continues in disordered eating behaviors, the more his or her mortality rate increases.
It is crucial to seek medical attention as soon as possible. Do not feel guilty about what you should have noticed in the past. Move forward and get help to prevent further detrimental effects of this disease. A person with anorexia nervosa will need to be on an extensive treatment plan involving a medical doctor, psychiatrist/psychologist, and registered dietitian. With proper medical attention and support of family and friends, a full recovery can be achieved.