Anorexia Nervosa Causes

The cause of anorexia nervosa is believed to be multifactorial with psychological, environmental, and biological factors believed to all play a role.

However, some people can have several risk factors without being affected, whereas other individuals who would not be considered at high risk may develop symptoms of anorexia nervosa. Therefore, the specific causes of the condition are still unclear.

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Psychological factors

There are certain personality and behavioral traits that are associated with anorexia nervosa and thought to be involved in the development of the condition. These factors include:

  • History of depression or anxiety
  • Poor handling of stress
  • Excessive fear or doubt about the future
  • Restraint of emotions
  • Tendency towards perfectionism
  • Feeling obsessive and/or compulsive
  • Phobia of being fat

Environmental factors

There are several influences from the surrounding environment that can have an impact on the likelihood that an individual will be affected by anorexia nervosa.

The culture and societal norms in modern society place high importance on physical beauty and, in Western culture, a thin frame is usually considered to be more beautiful. This concept is reinforced by media messages in magazines and online sources that focus on the physical beauty and minor flaws of celebrities.

Likely as a result of these idealizations places on the female gender, young women are more likely to be affected by the disorder than men. Interestingly, men who identify as homosexual or transgender are also at an increased risk of anorexia as compared to heterosexual men.

Pressure to conform to an idealized body image can also have an impact on the health of an individual and increase their risk of being affected by anorexia nervosa. For example, people who work or participate in activities such as dancing or athletic sports face more pressure to keep their body shape in line with the accepted standards.

Anorexia Nervosa, Causes, Signs and Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment.

Other environmental factors may include:

  • Stress at school or work
  • Physical and/or sexual abuse
  • Difficult family relationships
  • Bullying about body weight or shape
  • Stressful life events (e.g., loss of job, relationship breakdown)

In many cases, anorexia originates from a strict diet that becomes excessive and unhealthy, leading to a pathological mindset and outcomes.

Biological factors

There appears to be a familial link to anorexia and individuals with a family history of eating disorders, depression, or substance misuse in that these individuals are more likely to be affected. In fact, an individual with a close relative with anorexia is ten times more likely to suffer from anorexia nervosa than someone with no family history.

This association may be due to the presence of a genetic link that is inherited from the parents. It could also be an acquired trait from environmental circumstances, such as developing negative thoughts about body image similar to other members of the family.

The brain and hormonal level changes during puberty are also thought to be associated with anorexia nervosa, and the incidence of the condition is highest during this time. In particular, feelings of stress, anxiety, and low self-esteem are thought to trigger anorexia.

An abnormal biochemical makeup of the brain may also be involved. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) regulates the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, which affect the mood and appetite of the individual. Individuals with anorexia nervosa often have decreased levels of serotonin and norepinephrine, suggesting that they may be involved in the pathology of the condition.


Further Reading

Last Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Yolanda Smith

Written by

Yolanda Smith

Yolanda graduated with a Bachelor of Pharmacy at the University of South Australia and has experience working in both Australia and Italy. She is passionate about how medicine, diet and lifestyle affect our health and enjoys helping people understand this. In her spare time she loves to explore the world and learn about new cultures and languages.


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  1. Brian Wozniak Brian Wozniak United States says:

    I recently came to terms with being an anorexic. Many of the factors associated with anorexia are correct. It was as if they were talking about me. I am a perfectionist. People notice how good I am at things. Things come easy to me. I also have alot of fears about my future.

    Regular insomnia, also contributed to my overall view of eating.

    I gained my freshman 15 in 1988. I ate alone, and I ate comfort food. Six months later I went from being having an athletic build to being 5'7 and weighing close to 170 lbs. My face was fat, bloated, white.

    I was also developing nervous and axious feelings that I noticed. I had thoughts of killing myself when I was in our dorm, which was 15 stories up or higher.

    My ex had left me, and refused to marry. She was the love of my life. My second serious girlfriend also refused to marry me.

    All of them did.

    There were other factors. Girls at my highschool refused to date me. This caused me to have a very poor body image of my own body.

    I saw face as fat, even though girls would tell me I was attractive.

    I felt like an outsider in my highschool sometimes. I occasionally ate my lunch in the bathroom.

    I also was not given as much attention by good strangers ie Yearbook committee people in  my highschool. My sister was featured in dozens of photographs. I was not.

    I was very attractive at 15. But even when I excelled in music, I was a very talented rock guitarist. Many people told me. I was in a number of bands.

    I also dated the homecoming queen. It wasn't a big deal. But they took photos. Never put them in the yearbook.

    My sister was given alot of attention from authority figures like newspapers. She was featured on the front page of our towns newspaper.

    I was a little boy. But it was then that the seeds of desperation, and isolation began.

    I delivered the newspaper when I was boy. It was as if god said "Your common person, not special. "

    My sister was featured in it.

    My younger brother was also given more opportunities than most struggling in the arts.

    When my girlfriend Nicole refused to marry me, after Jeannine refused. My brain told me. Don't eat food again.

    I was beginning my dark path into anorexia nervosa.

    I over exercised. I was also very nervous, just like the name Anorexia Nervousa implies. My nervousness was becomeing worse and worse. It isolated me. I was devastated that my sister was given so much attention, and praise. So was my younger brother given excessive opportunities in Hollywood.

    I had bad jobs, girflriends who were unempathetic, and slept around. My mother was raised in a bad family. Full of drugs, and alcoholism, and child neglect.

    Finally I was an overachiever who felt I could never reach the level of acheivement that I wanted. I am a perfectionist. It causes isolation, despair, pain and sorrow.

    In a photo of me in 1993 I weighed 105 lbs. My goal was to get down to 95 lbs.

    My girlfriends sister or mother I can't remember who took a photo of me. I had a guitar I hid my face behind the guitar.

    Because I knew my mother, whom I did spend alot of time with, might see the photo and catch on that I had lost 60 lbs.

    She might have seen my guant face. She might have known I was anorexic.

    Sarah also confronted me. Your too thin, whats up. She noticed my ribs and got worried.

    I also did not bring money out to eat. My friends always had to buy, I didnt' intended to eat.

    When I looked in the mirror in 1996 and weighed myself I realized that I weight 102 lbs. I also had slow heart rate or bradycardia. Doctors thought "You have an athletes heart rate."

    This was because I had tried to put the weight back on me too quickly. My heart was having trouble.

    I was also light headed when I walked down the aisles in the libary. I would have to stop and lay down on the ground. For ten minutes.

    I also collapsed and fell alseap on the floor in my house up to 50 times in a year. I was so weak I couldn't get to the bed fast enough.

    I put the weight back on. It took years. I also went right back to being more isolated. I was not isolated when I was losing weight and lots of it. I had alot of friends

    But I hate eating, and I feel sadness from eating. When i eat, then I get more depressed. Though food tastes good, the pleasure doesn't last nor replaces my girlfriends and the attnetion that was denied me.

    During my anorexia I tried to kill myself numerous times.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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