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Many people worry about gaining too much weight. But in some people the worry becomes obsessive, resulting in a condition called anorexia nervosa. Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that can result in severe weight loss. A person with anorexia is preoccupied with calorie intake and weight.
People with anorexia nervosa eat an extremely low calorie diet and have an excessive fear of gaining weight. They often feel better about themselves when they lose weight. They may also exercise excessively. Anorexia is most commonly diagnosed in adolescent women, but it’s been diagnosed in older and younger women and in men.
Those with anorexia nervosa lose weight and maintain their extremely low weight in different ways. While some put severe restrictions on their calorie intake, others exercise excessively. Some employ a binge and purge method similar to that used by those with bulimia. Others use laxatives, vomiting, or diuretics to rid themselves of calories. If you have anorexia nervosa, your symptoms may include:
You may also notice behaviors such as:
The exact cause of anorexia nervosa isn’t known. People who develop anorexia may have a negative body image. They may be focused on being "perfect." They may be looking for ways to control their lives. Other factors like biology, environment, and psychology are believed to play a role.
Genetics and hormones might have an effect on the development of anorexia nervosa. Some evidence suggests a link between anorexia and serotonin, a chemical produced in the brain.
Pressure from society to look thin may also contribute to the development of anorexia nervosa. Unrealistic body images from media outlets like magazines and television can greatly influence young people and spark the desire to be thin.
Someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) might be more predisposed to maintaining the strict diet and exercise regimen that those with anorexia nervosa often maintain. That’s because people with OCD are prone to obsessions and compulsions.
Your primary care provider will perform a physical exam to check your blood pressure and heart rate. They will also do a psychological exam or refer you to a mental health professional who will ask about your eating habits and feelings. They will look for any criteria that show:
Your primary care provider may also order certain laboratory tests. Blood tests may be ordered to check your electrolyte levels and liver and kidney function. In addition, your primary care provider may check your bone density and look for heart irregularities.
One of the biggest obstacles in the treatment of anorexia nervosa is realizing that you need help. Many with anorexia nervosa don’t believe they have a problem. That can make treatment difficult.
The main goal of treatment is to restore your body to a normal weight and establish normal eating habits. A dietitian will help you learn how to eat properly. It might also be recommended that your family take part in therapy with you. For many people, anorexia nervosa is a lifelong challenge.
You and your family must work hard to overcome anorexia nervosa. Individual, family, and group therapies are often an integral part of treatment.
A form of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy is often used to treat anorexia nervosa. CBT helps change unhealthy thoughts and behaviors. Its goal is to help you learn to cope with strong emotions and build healthy self-esteem.
Family therapy gets family members involved in keeping you on track with your healthy eating and lifestyle. Family therapy also helps resolve conflicts within the family. It can help create support for the family member learning to cope with anorexia nervosa.
Group therapy allows people with anorexia nervosa to interact with others who have the same disorder. But it can sometimes lead to competition to be the thinnest. To avoid that, it’s important that you attend group therapy that is led by a qualified medical professional.
While there is no medication at this time that is proven to treat anorexia nervosa, antidepressants may be prescribed to deal with the anxiety and depression common in those with anorexia. These may make you feel better. But antidepressants do not diminish the desire to lose weight.
Depending on the severity of your weight loss, your primary care provider may want to keep you in the hospital for a few days to treat the effects of your anorexia nervosa. You may be put on a feeding tube and intravenous fluids if your weight is too low or if you’re dehydrated. If you continue to refuse to eat or exhibit psychiatric issues, your primary care provider may have you admitted into the hospital for intensive treatment.
Many people recover from anorexia. But a small percentage of people don’t. In some the condition can be deadly. Still others may go on to develop other eating disorders. For some people, overcoming anorexia takes lifelong treatment and maintenance. Joining a support group for anorexia can help increase your likelihood of recovery.
There is no proven method to prevent anorexia nervosa. But looking out for symptoms of the disorder can help with quick diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. If you find yourself or a loved one obsessing about weight, excessively exercising, or being dissatisfied with their appearance, you may want to seek professional help.
Written by: Carmella Wint and Winnie Yu
Medically reviewed on: Jan 12, 2016: Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PMHNP-BC
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