In recent decades, Anorexia has become a household term, a word commonly tossed around in casual conversation and easily found within the pages of celebrity magazines.
But what is Anorexia, exactly? How is it defined? And how can we recognize its symptoms in ourselves and others?
The National Eating Disorders Association website (nationaleatingdisorders.org) defines Anorexia Nervosa as “a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss.”
An individual suffering with anorexia is often withdrawn, isolating him or herself from family, friends, and activities s/he previously enjoyed. It’s important to take note that anorexia does not only affect young women; men and boys are a growing percentage of those diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa. Likewise, while the most common age to develop Anorexia Nervosa is during adolescence, a notable percentage of cases occur in older adults.
The National Eating Disorders Association website outlines four primary symptoms for Anorexia Nervosa:
- Resistance to maintaining body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height.
- Intense fear of weight gain or being “fat,” even though underweight.
- Disturbance in the experience of body weight or shape, undue influence of weight or shape on self-evaluation, or denial of the seriousness of low body weight.
- Loss of menstrual periods in girls and women post-puberty.
Other symptoms can include the presence of soft, fine hair (called lanugo) growing on the face and body, feeling cold even in very warm weather, and preoccupation or obsession with food and cooking for others. In addition, most anorexics develop a fixation on calories, fat grams, and other nutritional value for foods. They typically exhibit ritualistic behavior around eating and mealtime, and often experience intense anxiety if they cannot control these rituals. For this reason, many individuals with Anorexia Nervosa avoid trips away from home, and isolate themselves from social situations. Not everyone diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa will necessarily have all of these symptoms.
Because Anorexia Nervosa is essentially characterized by self-starvation, the health consequences can be severe. It is estimated that up to 20% of cases are fatal, making it the mental illnesses with one of the highest death rates. Starvation causes the body to slow down dramatically. When a body is lacking important nutrients, the organs suffer, including the heart. An anorexic’s heart rate and blood pressure are typically low, as the body is attempting to conserve energy (due to a lack of sufficient calories/energy). This can, in severe cases, lead to heart failure and, ultimately, death. Other risks include kidney failure (due to dehydration), osteoporosis (even in very young women), and fainting.
Treatment is key in recovering from Anorexia Nervosa. The sooner the illness is caught, the higher the chances are for a complete recovery. Often, a team approach is most successful. Patients will meet with a doctor, therapist, psychiatrist, dietitian, and participate in group therapy. This ensures that all aspects of the illness are treated. Often adjunct therapies such as gentle massage, art therapy, and body-image workshops can be helpful. Many eating disorders centers nationwide offer intensive, in-patient treatment in a supportive, home-like environment.
For more information on Anorexia Nervosa, or to find out about treatment professionals in your area, visit the National Eating Disorders Association website at nationaleatingdisorders.org.