Anorexia Nervosa is a serious and potentially life threatening mental illness. A person with Anorexia Nervosa has not made a ‘lifestyle choice’, they are actually very unwell and need help.
The reasons behind the development of Anorexia Nervosa will differ from person to person; known causes can include genetic predisposition and a combination of environmental, social and cultural factors.
For some people, restricting their food and weight can be a way of controlling areas of life that feel out of their control and their body image can come to define their entire sense of self worth. It can also be a way of expressing emotions that may feel too complex or frightening such as pain, stress or anxiety.
Restrictive dieting and excessive exercise can be contributing factors to the onset of Anorexia Nervosa. Women and girls with Anorexia Nervosa may use dieting behaviour in a bid to achieve a culturally constructed thin ideal whereas men may over exercise and control what they eat to achieve a muscular body.
While it is generally accepted that Anorexia Nervosa is more common in females across the ages (only 10% of sufferers are males), recent research suggests that amongst teenagers, the number of males with Anorexia Nervosa is rising, and in this age group, an equal number of males and females have been shown to meet full criteria for diagnosis of Anorexia Nervosa.
Defining Anorexia Nervosa
A person with Anorexia Nervosa will weigh less than 85% of what is expected for his/her age and height and may look emaciated. They could also have lost a considerable amount of weight in a short period of time. The person will be unable to maintain what is considered to be a normal and healthy weight.
A fear of gaining weight
Even when people with Anorexia Nervosa are underweight, starved or malnourished they will still possess an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming ‘fat’.
Disturbed body image
When someone has Anorexia Nervosa they may have an irrational obsession with body image. The person’s self worth can become entirely defined by the way they think they look. A person with Anorexia Nervosa can also develop a distorted view of their body, they may see themselves as fat when in reality they are dangerously underweight.
Subtypes of Anorexia Nervosa
There are two types of Anorexia Nervosa, Restricting Subtype and Binge Eating/Purging Subtype. Both are very serious mental illnesses that require treatment.
People with Anorexia Nervosa Restricting Subtype place severe restriction on the amount and type of food they consume. This can manifest in different ways including some or all of the following:
- Restricting certain types of foods (e.g. carbohydrates, ‘fatty’ foods)
- Counting calories
- Skipping meals
- Obsessive rules and rigid thinking (e.g. only eating food that is one colour)
These restrictive behaviours around food can be accompanied by excessive exercise.
Binge Eating/Purging Subtype
People with Anorexia Nervosa Binge Eating/Purging Subtype also place severe restriction on the amount and type of food they consume. In addition to this the person will also have binge eating/purging behaviour. These behaviours include:
- Binge eating – eating a large amount of food accompanied by a feeling of ‘loss of control’
- Self induced vomiting, deliberately misusing laxatives, diuretics or enemas to compensate for eating food
What are the risks associated with Anorexia Nervosa?
The risks associated with Anorexia Nervosa are severe and can be life threatening. People with Anorexia Nervosa may experience:
- Anaemia (iron deficiency)
- Reduced/compromised immune system function
- Intestinal problems (e.g. abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhoea)
- Loss of or disturbance of menstrual periods in girls and women
- Increased risk of infertility in men and women
- Kidney failure
- Osteoporosis– a condition that can lead to human bones becoming fragile and easy to fracture
- Heart problems (e.g. cardiac abnormalities, sudden cardiac arrest)
For more detailed information on Anorexia Nervosa visit Eds Up (link to clearinghouse)
What are the warning signs of Anorexia Nervosa?
Having awareness about Anorexia Nervosa and its signs and symptoms can make a huge difference to the duration and severity of the illness. Seeking help at the first warning sign is much more effective than waiting until the illness is in full swing. If you or someone you know is exhibiting some or a combination of these signs it is vital to seek help and support as soon as possible.
The warning signs of Anorexia Nervosa can be physical, psychological and behavioural. It is possible for someone with Anorexia Nervosa to display a combination of these symptoms.
Find out more about the warning signs