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Anorexia Nervosa: The signs, symptoms and treatment

Anorexia is an eating disorder that can affect both women and men


Written by SpunOut | View this authors Twitter page and posted in health


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Anorexia Nervosa is an eating disorder that causes you to aim for and maintain a body weight that's lower than what's normal/healthy for your age, sex and height.

The word anorexia literally means loss of appetite but that's not necessarily what happens to someone who has it. In fact, their appetite is just suppressed while they develop a really intense interest in food.

The eating disorder can strike at any stage in life and it affects both men and women. It's more common among young girls and women but at least 10% of people with anorexia are male.

Causes of anorexia

In general, it's really difficult to pinpoint a single cause that can explain why someone develops an eating disorder and when it comes to anorexia the story is much the same. It's thought that a number of things, including psychological and physical factors, can trigger it.

Someone might develop anorexia in response to an upset in their lives. Perhaps they've gone through a really traumatic experience, a major change, been bullied, lost someone, become overly stressed or had critical comments made about their weight or shape. Sometimes it's harder to explain because the triggers aren't as obvious.

People who are overly concerned with what others think, and worry about meeting their standards or expectations, can be more likely to develop an eating disorder. Those feelings of low self-worth and vulnerability are common among young people and this may explain why eating disorders affect so many people during adolescence.

Symptoms of anorexia

The first thing to be aware of is a desire to achieve and maintain a body weight that's lower than what's normal/healthy for you. That's at the heart of the disorder and leads to two types of symptoms: Physical and pyschological.

Physical Symptoms

  • Being overly active and spending more time than you should exercising
  • Feeling tired after minimal effort
  • Poor circulation, causing you to feel cold
  • Your tummy is bloated and retaining fluid
  • You might also have constipation and abdominal pain
  • Settling yourself down is difficult and you're very tired because you can't sleep
  • Your hair is dry and thinning while your skin is dry and off colour
  • Fine, downy hair may start growing on your face and body because your system is trying to keep warm
  • Some people can lose their periods because the hormones have been thrown off kilter
  • Your interest in sex has totally disappeared

Psychological Symptoms

  • Low self-esteem
  • Feeling irritable and having mood swings
  • Change will be difficult to cope with and you might have difficulty dealing with conflict or frustration
  • You might withdraw from friends and family and end up socially isolated
  • Distorted body image – thinking you look fat, even when people tell you otherwise.
  • When it comes to thinking about life everything will be in black and white/right and wrong terms, you just can't see a middle ground
  • Depression may set in and you might develop obsessive and/or compulsive behaviour

Your relationship with food

  • Rigid, limited diet, and frequent weighing
  • Purging behaviour by vomiting, or use of medications such as laxatives, diuretics or stimulants
  • Excessive thinking and talking about food and related issues
  • Lying about food intake, claiming to have already eaten or to have plans to eat elsewhere
  • Chasing food around the plate, taking a long time over meals
  • Cooking for others
  • Reading and collecting recipes
  • Increased use of spices, condiments and chewing gum
  • Increased consumption of fluids
  • Episodes of bingeing or perceived overeating
  • Secret disposal of food

Treatment for anorexia

No matter how hard it may seem, it is possible to make a recovery. Both the psychological and physical aspects of the disorder can be assessed and treated.

Aim of treatment

The aim of treatment is to restore and maintain an adequate weight and to establish a regular eating habit. Medication is not used very often. Education about the nature of anorexia and about healthy eating habits is a very important part of treatment.

Psychological Interventions

Psychological Interventions such as Individual Psychotherapy ('talking therapy') and Family Therapy are the main forms of treatment.

In Individual Psychotherapy the person with anorexia is encouraged to talk about personal difficulties and any other issues that may have a role in causing or maintaining the eating disorder. In some cases, people will attend residential treatment centres to support their recovery and to address the underlying issues that may be maintaining the eating disorder.

Support from family and friends is very important in helping the individual to make progress.

In-patient treatment

In extreme cases, when someone with anorexia has serious physical symptoms associated with low weight and malnutrition, they may need in-patient treatment in a medical hospital. At extremes of low weight or starvation, regaining weight can be dangerous and should be monitored by doctors and dieticians.

In some cases, a period of inpatient psychiatric treatment may also be recommended to support weight restoration and to make sure all of the relevant professionals can be a part of the recovery process.

If you feel that you may have an eating disorder you should contact your local GP or Bodywhys, which is the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland for more information and support. www.bodywhys.ie

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Published Decem­ber 20th2012
Last updated Octo­ber 11th2018
Tags anorexia eating disorder body image
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