By Yolanda Smith, BPharm
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by severe weight loss, an overwhelming fear of gaining weight and a disturbed perception of body weight and image.
Anorexia nervosa is the third most prevalent chronic illness in adolescents in the United States and other developed nations. Females are more likely to be affected by anorexia than men, although the incidence in men is rising.
The onset of the disorder is relatively early, and 86% of patients report the onset before the age of 20 years. Anorexia nervosa has a higher death rate than any other eating disorder.
The cause of anorexia nervosa is thought to be multifactorial with psychological, environmental and biological influences all playing a role.
Psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety are closely linked to anorexia nervosa. Unhealthy thought patterns and behaviors are thought to arise as a result of psychological factors.
The surrounding environment and external pressures placed on the individual can also impact the likelihood of suffering from anorexia. This includes pressure from societal norms and ideals, in addition to interpersonal relationships that may induce the desire to maintain a low body weight.
Biological influences include a genetic predisposition and other inherent factors that may increase the risk of being affected. People with a family history of anorexia are significantly more likely to have the disorder, suggesting that there may be a genetic link.
Individuals with anorexia use extreme methods to control their body weight with strict dieting, skipping meals or excessive exercise. Some may also resort to laxatives, diet aid, diuretics or enemas to reduce their calorie intake after eating.
The appearance of someone with anorexia is severely underweight, and they may try to hide the shape of their body by wearing loose clothing. The hair, skin and nails can also be affected and may be discolored and lose strength.
They often obsessively measure or weigh themselves and repeatedly check their physical appearance in a mirror, which is referred to as “body checking”.
There are many complications associated with anorexia nervosa, which can sometimes be fatal. As patients with the condition starve their body, they can become malnourished and every organ in the body can be affected, similar to the effects seen in starvation.
Cardiovascular complications are the most likely to be life-threatening. Anorexia and lead to arrhythmias or an imbalance of electrolytes in the blood, both of which have the potential to be fatal.
The psychological health of a patient with anorexia is also compromised, and depression can lead to suicidal thoughts and attempts in some cases.
The changes in the levels of several hormones can also cause complications. For example, the reduced estrogen in females can cause irreversible infertility in some severe cases. Additionally, every other system in the body can also be affected. For example, there may be damage to organs such as the kidneys or liver.
Treatment and Support
Given the potential severity of the symptoms associated with anorexia nervosa, it is vital that patients are able to access the appropriate treatment. In many cases, patients may initially deny the severity of their low body weight and may try to hide the symptoms of the disorder from their family and friends.
The treatment usually involves a multidisciplinary team to provide psychological therapy and nutritional advice. Meal plans with specifically tailored energy intake can help to increase the body weight to a healthy level in a safe and controlled manner.
It is important for patients to have access to a support group where they can feel comfortable to discuss their struggle and progress in dealing with the condition. This helps to make positive changes in habits and continue on the path to recovery.
Last Updated: Mar 24, 2016