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Anorexia: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Anorexia nervosa involves an obsession with food and weight that can end up consuming a person's life. It is defined as the intense need to drastically limit food intake to produce weight loss.

Anorexia is often thought to be a disease that is confined to the female gender. This isn't so. Anorexia affects about 6 percent of the U.S. population according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and 5 to 10 percent of people diagnosed with anorexia are male, says the University of Pittsburgh. Today's focus on thinness equaling beauty has pushed anorexia from being a misunderstood disease, to a trendy fad for young adults and teens of both genders. Hundreds of "Pro-Ana" websites not only encourage anorexic behavior, but also provide tips on how to get better at it. These sites cover information on hiding vomit, eating less, feeling full without eating and many other "pro tips."

Though these sites focus on eating, the disease is less about food and more about control, the Mayo Clinic says on its website. Those suffering from anorexia are looking for a way to cope with emotional problems, so they try to find something in their life they can have power over. Food is something that is a constant in a person's life, so it can easily be controlled.

Causes

As with many mental illnesses, the exact causes of anorexia are difficult to pinpoint, but scientific research has helped narrow the field of likely causes. For example, though media images of thin women and fashion models are often blamed for causing or contributing to anorexia, research has shown that the disorder has a strong genetic component.

"Family studies have consistently demonstrated that anorexia nervosa runs in families," according to Dr. Cynthia Bulik in her study, "The Genetics of Anorexia Nervosa," published in 2007 in the journal Annual Review of Nutrition .

Dr. Walter Kaye of the University of California, San Diego, one of the country's top eating disorder researchers, agrees that much of the concern and alarm over thin fashion models and other media images is misplaced.

"People have long been blaming families and the media, but eating disorders are biological illnesses, and better treatments will come from more biologically-based approaches," Kaye told Scientific American Mind magazine in June 2008.

The evidence so far suggests that anorexia is caused (or at least heavily influenced) by genetics. If true, this may mean that people with the disease could be treated with gene therapy.

anorexia nervosa, anorexic
A woman shows one of the signs of anorexia nervosa: major weight loss.
Credit: PutilichD | Shutterstock

Signs of anorexia

The most obvious sign of anorexia is not eating, but there can be other, sneakier ways a person with anorexia can control calorie intake. For example, some will exercise excessively to burn calories. To an onlooker, this may seem like a healthy activity because it is difficult to track just how often the person with anorexia is exercising.

A person suffering from anorexia may also binge eat — eat massive amounts of food in a short amount of time. Afterward, to get rid of the food, the person will purge by using laxatives, diuretics or enemas, or by vomiting. The number one goal of a person with anorexia is weight loss at any cost.

To achieve this objective, people with anorexia will lie about how much they have eaten, withdraw from family or friends and stay home instead of going to social events. They often become moody, depressed, obsessive about their weight, and disinterested with things they once enjoyed.

Symptoms of anorexia

Because food is fuel for the body, restricting food intake can cause drastic changes. Major weight loss is the most noticeable, but inside, the body deteriorates quite quickly. Malnutrition leads to heart problems, constipation, low blood pressure, osteoporosis, swelling in the arms and legs, abnormal blood counts, loss of menstruation, dehydration and insomnia.

While someone suffering from anorexia may say they are trying to look better, the disease will often rob a person of his or her good looks. Hair will turn brittle or may even fall out, fingers turn blue, skin becomes dry and a soft layer of hair will grow all over the skin. Fatigue from anorexia can also leave the person pale, with large circles under the eyes.

Anorexia vs. bulimia

Many people think that anorexia and bulimia are interchangeable. While they are both eating disorders, they are different. While anorexia mostly involves not eating or limiting food intake for long periods of time, bulimia involves purging food or restricting food short-term.

Symptoms of anorexia and bulimia overlap, so doctors use a simple test to determine if a person suffers from anorexia or bulimia. The National Library of Medicine says that if a person falls 15 percent or more below their ideal body weight, then they are considered anorexic. If they maintain a normal body weight, or are heavier, then they are considered bulimic.

Due to weight loss and malnutrition, the effects of anorexia on the body are often more severe than with bulimia, as well. For example, those with bulimia typically have gum and teeth disorders from purging.

Even though these two eating disorders are different, a person can suffer from both at the same time or separately throughout their lives.

Anorexia treatment

Only one in ten men and women with eating disorders receive treatment, though treatment is very important to the survival of those affected. Eating disorders kill more people than any other mental illness, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Since anorexia can cause so many problems in the body, the first step is treating the symptoms. For example, getting the person hydrated and on medication that can help with heart arrhythmias caused by the lack of nourishment would be a first priority.

Once the symptoms have been addressed, action will be taken to help the person gain weight while addressing mental problems that are the underlying cause of the disease. Therapy, antidepressants, or other psychiatric medications and hospitalization are all treatments used to treat anorexia.

While anorexia nervosa is a serious disease, it doesn't need to be a death sentence. Reaching out to those afflicted with anorexia and aiding them in getting the help they need can make a big difference.

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