Understanding Anorexia Nervosa
Anorexia, which is the common name of the disorder anorexia nervosa, is a condition where people see themselves as being overweight, or want to control the shape and size of a specific body part, even when they’re extremely thin. Anorexia can manifest as an intense fear of gaining weight or an extreme obsession over the shape of our body, to the point that we stop eating, exercise excessively, or take other actions to avoid gaining weight, such as bingeing and purging. Typically, anorexia is used in order to have a sense of control over some aspect of our lives.
Anorexia is diagnosed when a person weighs at least 15% less than his or her normal/ideal body weight. Because it can cause severe and irreversible organ damage, anorexia nervosa is the most deadly mental illness, with a higher mortality rate than any other mental illness.
If you or someone you know is exhibiting any signs of anorexia, text “START” to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Prevalence of Anorexia
While 13% of young people may experience at least one eating disorder by the age of 20 and 9% of the US population will have an eating disorder in their lifetime, true anorexia affects less than 2% of the population. Anorexia affects women, men, adolescents, children, and people of all ethnicities, cultures, and socioeconomic groups. It’s most common, however, in people ages 18-35, and affects more women than men. Anorexia might also be more common for people who participate in certain sports and activities that focus heavily on body shape and size, like dance, gymnastics, and wrestling.
What causes anorexia?
Unfortunately, experts don’t know what causes anorexia or why it affects certain people. Most often, anorexia begins as dieting, but at some point that dieting becomes an obsession leading to extreme and unhealthy weight loss.
There are two subtypes of anorexia:
- Restriction: Severely limiting food intake, especially with foods high in sugar, fat, and carbohydrates.
- Binging and purging or Bulimia: Restricting food and then binging on large amounts, in order to then make themselves vomit and/or overuse laxatives to empty their bowels.
Knowing the Signs
In a society that praises thinness, it can be hard to truly know if someone is struggling with anorexia. The mere aspect of being underweight isn’t always a sign of anorexia. Sometimes somebody with anorexia can look healthy, but actually be malnourished. That’s why it’s important to understand all the warning signs and symptoms. The most common include:
- Anxiety around food
- Altered body image or extreme fear of gaining weight
- Denial of hunger, skipping meals, or taking only small portions of food at regular meals
- Rigidity and/or rituals around when, where, and what someone eats
- Extreme tiredness or fatigue
- Always being cold/wearing layers of clothing (this is also to hide their weight loss)
- Withdrawal and other negative mood changes
What Anorexia Does to the Body
Besides looking for those outward signs, anorexia takes its toll physically on the body in other ways. These include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling dizzy
- Stomach cramps, and other gastrointestinal complaints (constipation, acid reflux, etc.)
- Trouble sleeping
- Irregular periods or no period (only having a period while on birth control; a false period)
- Dental problems, such as discoloration, enamel erosion, cavities, and tooth sensitivity
- Dry skin, brittle nails, and thinning hair
- The growth of fine, downy body hair (called lanugo)
How to Treat Anorexia and Get Help
Anorexia is treatable, but people with it will likely need ongoing and structured therapy to change their relationship with food and the emotional and mental fixations that accompany it.
As with any mental health condition, it’s never too early or late to seek help. You can contact the National Eating Disorder hotline by phone or chat at 800-931-2237 or access their website for more information.
Helping Someone with Anorexia
In order to help someone you know who may be suffering from anorexia, it’s important to educate yourself about what it is and how someone with anorexia thinks. You can also read up on recovery resources to have them on hand for when you or your friend is ready.
Things to Avoid
Avoid talking about food and weight. This includes comments about what their body looks like, the amount of food they have on their plate, or how good or thin they look. Telling someone with anorexia an anorexic that he or she looks very thin can reinforce their behavior because they want to look and be thin. Similarly, commenting positively about them gaining weight may suggest to them that they’re failing (even if your intention is to remark on how healthy they look).
Common Signs that Someone Might Need More Support
If you encounter resistance, don’t give up; sometimes all someone needs is time. Focus on communicating that you care and that you’ll be there when he or she is ready to confide in you and hopefully seek treatment.
If you’re worried that things are not improving, talk to someone who might be able to help — your friend’s loved one, a mutual friend, or a professional. Contact the National Eating Disorder hotline by phone or chat at 800-931-2237 for more information and resources.