This article covers
- What is anorexia nervosa?
- Causes of anorexia nervosa
- The symptoms of anorexia nervosa
- Treating anorexia nervosa
- List of useful resources
- How Mindsum can help?
What is anorexia nervosa?
Anorexia nervosa is a type of eating disorder that affects the body weight because the person restricts the amount of food that they eat. This is also due to an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted view of their body-shape.
An eating disorder is not a lifestyle or a personal choice. It is a complex illness that need specialist treatment. Although it is more common in young adolescent girls, it can affect people of all ages, genders, ethnicities and background.
It is important to recognise the signs of anorexia nervosa early on. If left untreated, this disorder can lead to death due to starvation or suicide.
Causes of anorexia nervosa
There is no specific cause for eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa. It is likely due to a combination of genetic, neurobiological, psychosocial and sociocultural factors. These are listed below:
- Hormonal imbalances
- Being overweight as a child
- Being in a society, group or workplace that emphasises the need to be slim (e.g. dance group, modelling, athletics)
- Having anxiety, depression, low self-esteem
- Having a tendency for perfectionism
- Bullying/criticism about body-shape or eating habits
- Family history of an eating disorder, psychiatric disorder or substance misuse
- History of sexual abuse
The symptoms of anorexia nervosa
Anorexia nervosa is a progressive and chronic disorder. The symptoms are not always obvious, especially when it first begins to develop. There are behavioural and physical changes that can be considered as warning signs. These can include:
Emotional and behavioural warning signs
- Pre-occupation with food control (e.g. monitoring calories/grams of fat)
- Refusal to eat certain foods
- Checking the body regularly or avoiding mirrors/scales
- Social withdrawal or being secretive (e.g. avoiding going out to eat)
- Exercising excessively
- May eat a lot of food at once followed by purging
- Misusing laxatives
- Comments about being “fat”
- Challenges the idea of gaining weight
- Mental health issues (e.g. anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, self-harm)
Physical warning signs
- Unusually low Body Mass Index for their age
- Rapid weight loss
- Stomach cramps, constipation, reflux, gastro-intestinal problems
- Dizziness, fainting, palpitations
- Feeling cold all the time
- Menstrual irregularities (e.g. period stops)
- Dry skin, brittle nails
- Loss or thinning of hair
- Dental problems (e.g. teeth discolouration, cavities)
There is also a type of anorexia where the person might not be under-weight at the time but can show other symptoms of the disorder. This is known as atypical anorexia nervosa.
Anorexia nervosa can cause many complications in the life of a young person. It can lead to social isolation, low mood, suicidal thoughts/intentions, self-harm and it can be very stressful for other family members to deal with.
“Jade is 15 years old. A year ago she experienced severe bullying by a group of students at school because of her body shape. This caused her to feel so terrible that she decided to start exercising and changing her eating. As she lost weight, the thought of gaining it back would terrify her. Now, she skips lunch entirely and burns off dinner by exercising intensely for 5 hours every night. At first, Jade’s mum was pleased to see her being healthier but has become more concerned since teachers reported her fainting at school on several occasions. Her mum thinks that it might be helpful for her to speak to a professional.”
Treating anorexia nervosa
Anorexia nervosa can be treated to prevent long term problems in the young person’s life. One of the main areas of focus in treatment is to improve weight gain. A specialist might prescribe vitamins, minerals and mealtime advice that will help with weight gain. Other treatments might include:
Anorexia-nervosa-focused family therapy
This therapy involves the parents in playing an important role in helping the child to return to normal eating behaviours. Parents gain knowledge about the disorder and work together with the therapist to manage mealtime and re-feeding at home. This might typically involve 18-20 sessions, lasting over one year.
Cognitive behavioural therapy for eating disorders
If family therapy is not an option, the young person is usually given a specialised cognitive behavioural therapy for eating disorders. The therapist will work with the child and their parents to change unhealthy thoughts and behaviours around food. This might typically involve 40 sessions, lasting over 40 weeks.
Medication can be prescribed in combination with therapy to help the person cope with health problems and other mental issues, such as depression and anxiety. However, medication is not usually prescribed for young people under 18 years old.
Admission to hospital
In cases where the effects of anorexia nervosa are severe with life-threatening complications, the person may be admitted to hospital. This is where they will receive care that is focused on physical conditions, weight gain and mental health. This will ensure that the person is safe and can begin to recover from the serious effects of starvation.
You can get more information about anorexia nervosa on the NHS website. Click here to access the link.
You can find information for young people on anorexia nervosa on the Young Minds website. Click here to access the link
Beat Eating Disorders
You can access a wide range of information and resources about anorexia nervosa on the Beat Eating Disorders website. Click here to access the link.
Anorexia & Bulimia Care
You can access support and advice for anorexia nervosa on the Anorexia & Bulimia care website. Click here to access the link.