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Anorexia nervosa

What is anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa - or just anorexia - is an eating disorder in which a person tries to keep their weight as low as possible. Anorexia is defined as a mental health condition with complications that can damage health and can be life-threatening.

A person with anorexia will often think they are fatter than they are and have a distorted image of their own body.

Most anorexia cases develop in women and girls, though it is becoming more common in men and boys.

Anorexia symptoms are often first seen at around 14 after puberty or in early adulthood.

Who gets anorexia nervosa?

Eating disorders are more common in females than in males. The risk of developing an eating disorder is greater in actors, models, dancers, and athletes in sports where appearance and/or weight are important, such as wrestling, gymnastics, and figure skating.

People with anorexia nervosa tend to be very high achievers, performing very well in school, sports, work, and other activities. Anorexia nervosa usually begins around the time of puberty, but it can develop at any time.

What causes anorexia nervosa?

The exact cause of anorexia nervosa is not known, but research suggests that a combination of certain personality traits, emotions and thinking patterns, as well as biological and environmental factors, might be responsible.

People with anorexia nervosa often use food and eating as a way to gain a sense of control when other areas of their lives are very stressful or when they feel overwhelmed. Feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, anxiety, anger, or loneliness can also contribute to the development of the disorder. In addition, people with eating disorders may have troubled relationships, or have a history of being teased about their size or weight. Pressure from peers and a society that equates thinness and physical appearance with beauty can also have an impact on the development of anorexia nervosa.

Eating disorders may also have physical causes. Changes in hormones that control how the body and mind maintain mood, appetite, thinking, and memory, can foster eating disorders. The fact that anorexia nervosa tends to run in families also suggests that a susceptibility to the disorder may be hereditary.

What are the symptoms of anorexia nervosa?

  • Rapid weight loss over several weeks or months.
  • Continuing to diet even when thin or when weight is very low.
  • Having an unusual interest in food, calories, nutrition, or cooking.
  • Intense fear of gaining weight.
  • Strange eating habits or routines, such as eating in secret.
  • Feeling fat, even if underweight.
  • Inability to assess one's own body weight realistically.
  • Striving for perfection and being very self-critical.
  • Undue influence of body weight or shape on self-esteem.
  • Depression, anxiety, or irritability.
  • Infrequent or irregular, or even missed menstrual periods in females.
  • Laxative, diuretic, or diet pill use.
  • Frequent illness.
  • Wearing loose clothing to hide weight loss.
  • Compulsive exercising.
  • Feeling worthless or hopeless.
  • Social withdrawal.
  • Physical symptoms that develop over time, including low tolerance of cold weather, brittle hair and nails, dry or yellowing skin, anaemia, constipation, swollen joints, tooth decay, and a new growth of thin hair over the body.

Untreated, anorexia nervosa can lead to:

  • Damaged organs, particularly the heart, brain, and kidneys
  • Drop in blood pressure, pulse, and breathing rates
  • Loss of hair
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Thinning of bones, osteoporosis
  • Fluid-electrolyte imbalance
  • Death from starvation or suicide

WebMD Medical Reference

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