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What is anorexia?

Anorexia Nervosa is an eating disorder that can affect anyone. Find out more about the causes, symptoms and treatments.


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


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Anorexia Nervosa is a serious mental health condition that causes a change in a person's relationship with food and eating habits. Anorexia is a type of eating disorder.

Someone with anorexia will try to keep their weight as low as possible, usually by limiting what they eat and exercising too much. This can eventually lead the person to starve themselves and can make them sick. 

Anyone of any gender can develop an eating disorder. Eating disorders often develop during teenage years, but it can happen at any age. Although it is not always clear why someone becomes anorexic, it can be linked to concerns about your body shape or size and what you eat, anxiety and low self-esteem, a family history of eating disorders, mental health problems or addiction, or experiencing sexual abuse.

Signs and symptoms of anorexia

The main symptom of anorexia is losing a lot of weight and wanting to achieve and maintain a body weight that is lower than what is healthy for your age and height. 

The process of trying to lose weight or keep your weight at an unhealthy level can result in a change in behaviour, as well as both physical and psychological symptoms:

Your behaviour when dealing with anorexia

  • Missing meals and limiting what you eat and how often you eat
  • Weighing yourself all the time
  • Lying about when you've eaten and your weight
  • Exercising too much
  • Purging food by vomiting or using medications such as laxatives or diuretics to make you need to go to the toilet
  • Obsessively thinking about food and how much you've eaten all the time
  • Avoiding meals with other people 
  • Keeping strict rituals around the meals you eat
  • Secretly getting rid of food
  • Having a fear of gaining weight
  • Seeing your weight loss as a good thing
  • Not admitting the seriousness of your weight loss

Physical symptoms of anorexia

  • Your weight is lower than what is considered healthy for your age and height
  • Being overly active and spending too much time exercising
  • Feeling tired after minimal effort
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Poor circulation, causing you to feel cold
  • Your tummy is bloated and retaining fluid
  • You might also have constipation and abdominal pain
  • 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
  • Changes to your period, or your periods stopping entirely
  • Loss of interest in sex

Psychological symptoms of anorexia

  • Low self-esteem
  • Feeling irritable and having mood swings
  • You might withdraw from friends and family and end up socially isolated
  • Struggling with your body image and believing your body looks different to how others might see it
  • Depression may set in and you might develop obsessive and/or compulsive behaviour

Complications of anorexia

Anorexia Nervosa is a serious condition, and can lead to malnutrition since the person with anorexia is starving themselves or trying to eat as little as possible. Some of the complications that can arise with anorexia include:

  • Weak or tired muscles and problems with the bones in the body
  • Fertility issues 
  • Heart problems
  • Issues with the brain and your nerves, for example having trouble focusing or forgetting things
  • Kidney or bowel issues
  • Anaemia (low levels of red blood cells, causing you to feel weak or tired)
  • A weakened immune system, making it harder to fight off sickness

Anorexia can also be a life-threatening condition - it is important to seek treatment if you think you or someone you care about may have anorexia.

Treatment for anorexia

No matter how hard it may seem, it is possible to make a recovery. Everyone's recovery journey is different and it may take time, but you can recover from anorexia.

Getting help for anorexia

If you think you may have anorexia, it is important to go to your GP as soon as you can and let them know what's going on. They will be able to point you in the right direction to get treatment. 

If you are worried about a friend or family member, talk to them about it and encourage them to go see their GP. You can also offer to go with them if they don't want to go alone. 

How treatment works

The type of treatment you receive can depend on your situation, but most people will experience a mix of talking therapy and supervised weight gain to bring you back to a healthy weight. There may also be scans to determine the health of your bones and treatment if your bone-density has been affected. 

Talking therapy and family therapy

Talking therapy is usually a part of treatment for anorexia. Some people will take part in individual talking therapy, while others (especially young people) might do family-based treatment with members of their family.

The aim of talking therapy is to help you understand the root causes of your eating disorder, and to work towards feeling more comfortable with food. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be used to support you with your recovery from anorexia. CBT looks at the ways that our thoughts affect our behaviours and feelings.

Younger people might take part in family-based treatment (FBT), involving you and your family talking to a therapist. FBT will look at how you have been affected by your anorexia, and what your family can do to support you in getting better. 

In-patient treatment

In most cases, it will be possible to stay at home during treatment. However, 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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