Anorexia Signs & Symptoms

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Understanding Anorexia

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Anorexia nervosa is a severe mental health disorder that is characterized by an obsession with weight and the extreme restriction of food intake, which can lead to dangerous weight loss. The desire to curb and/or stop eating comes from the fear and anxiety of gaining weight or getting fat. Individuals with this mental illness often take extreme measures to stop weight gain, leading to serious health problems. Using laxatives, diuretics, and/or enemas is common for those who struggle with anorexia, as is carrying out ritualistic behaviors when it comes to preparing and eating food. Exercising to excess is also another behavior that those will anorexia might display. The fear or anxiety one experiences can cause a variety of other severe mental and physical health risks that could be deadly if not treated.

There are two forms of anorexia nervosa that an individual can be diagnosed with. The most common form of anorexia, which is the restricting type, includes fasting, dieting, and excessive exercising. The other form of anorexia is known as binge-eating/purging, which includes overeating followed up by self-induced vomiting to remove food from an individual’s body. Both of these forms of anorexia include distorted and intrusive perceptions of one’s body image. Many times, those with this type of disorder view food as dangerous, and any kind of encouragement to eat from others is considered threatening to one’s goal of losing weight. Thankfully, treatment is available to those who battle with anorexia. By intertwining effective treatment and appropriate methods, those with anorexia nervosa can learn how to live happy, healthy lives that are no longer impacted by this disorder.

Statistics

Anorexia statistics

Roughly 24 million people suffer from an eating disorder, including anorexia nervosa. Among adolescents and young adults, the third most common, chronic, diagnosed illness is anorexia nervosa, which is most common among individuals between the ages of 12 and 26. About 0.5% of the female population is affected by anorexia nervosa. This mental health condition is most common among females, with about 90% of anorexia cases involving girls and women, but individuals of all genders do suffer from this disease. This mental health condition has an incredibly high mortality rate and can add to an individual’s chances of developing self-harming behaviors, suicide attempts, and suicidal ideations.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for anorexia

Experts in the field of eating disorders agree that a variety of contributing factors can add to one’s development of anorexia nervosa. Consider the following when trying to understand the origins of one’s eating disorder:

Genetic: Those who have a close relative, such as a sibling or a parent, with an eating disorder, bipolar disorder, or depressive disorder are at a greater risk for showing signs and symptoms connected to anorexia nervosa. Because of this tie, it can be concluded that one’s genetic background can serve as a factor in one’s development of anorexia. In addition, studies have shown that the rates of prevalence for this specific mental health condition are greater in identical twins than in fraternal twins.

Environmental: Experts believe that one’s culture and environment can play a major role in the importance of being thin, which can in turn contribute to the development of anorexia nervosa. Specific occupations, including those in sports and the fashion industry, can also lead to a greater risk in developing this condition based on the focus on one’s physical appearance. Additionally, those who struggle with chronic stress, abuse, trauma, and neglect are said to be at a greater risk for developing this disorder, as restricting food can provide them with the control that they desire but are lacking in other areas of their lives. Lastly, being teased about one’s weight during adolescence can also serve as a factor in the development of anorexia.

Risk Factors:

  • Family history of eating disorders or other mental illnesses
  • Preexisting mental illness or illnesses
  • Exposure to chronic stress / trauma / abuse/ neglect
  • Being the victim of bullying
  • Being in an environment or part of a culture that strongly values thinness

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of anorexia

The signs and symptoms that that an individual who is suffering from anorexia nervosa can battle with will vary based on the period of time that an individual has been struggling with thoughts and behaviors surrounding this mental health condition. If you are worried that you or someone you love is battling with this disorder, keep an eye out for the following symptoms:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Lying about food intake
  • Abusing substances
  • Constantly checking oneself in the mirror
  • Excessive exercise
  • Consuming laxatives, diuretics, or using enemas
  • Complaints about appearance
  • Skipping meals
  • Wearing oversized clothing
  • Binge-eating
  • Self-induced vomiting
  • Engaging in ritualistic behaviors when preparing food (e.g., cutting food into small pieces, weighing food before eating, chewing food and then refusing to swallow, etc.)
  • Frequently weighing oneself
  • Restricting or limiting types of food consumed (e.g. eating only certain vegetables, etc.)
  • Denial of hunger
  • Refusing to eat
  • Making excuses for not eating
  • Rigid dieting or fasting

Physical symptoms:

  • Swollen glands
  • Erosion of enamel on teeth due to purging
  • Broken blood vessels
  • Yellowing of the skin
  • Hypotension
  • Swelling of tissues
  • Constipation
  • Intolerance to cold / hypothermia
  • Abdominal pain
  • Excessive energy or excessive lethargy
  • Delayed onset of menstrual cycle or a total absence of menstrual cycle in females
  • Presence of fine hair on arms and legs
  • Decrease in bone density / broken bones
  • Low blood pressure
  • Slowed heart rate / irregular heart beat
  • Thinning hair / hair loss
  • Brittle nails
  • Dehydration
  • Dry skin
  • Suppression of immune system
  • Low hormone levels
  • Anemia
  • Electrolyte disturbances
  • Failure to achieve physical developmental milestones, e.g. age-appropriate height expectations (adolescents only)
  • Flat affect
  • Extreme weight loss / emaciated appearance
  • Failure to meet expected weight for age (adolescents only)

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Poor impulse control
  • Obsessions / compulsions / preoccupations with food, weight, or body shape
  • Desire to control situations and environment

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Depressed mood
  • Drastic shifts in mood
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming overweight
  • Low range of emotions
  • Low self-esteem
  • Low self-worth
  • Feelings of ineffectiveness

Effects

Effects of anorexia

A series of devastating effects can occur in someone who does not obtain treatment for anorexia nervosa. With death being the most costly of all symptoms, below are some other examples of effects that can develop if treatment is not sought:

  • Self-harm
  • Suicide attempts
  • Substance use, abuse, or addiction
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Damage to vital organs
  • Heart attack / failure
  • Kidney failure
  • Digestive system damage
  • Loss of muscle mass / weakened muscles
  • Osteoporosis
  • Social withdrawal or isolation
  • Infertility
  • Inability to attend school or work
  • Inability to adhere to responsibilities or roles

Co-Occurring Disorders

Anorexia and co-occurring disorders

There are a variety of other mental health conditions that can occur at the same time as anorexia nervosa. In many cases, the below listed mental health disorders might be diagnosed before the onset of symptoms of anorexia nervosa develop:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Substance use disorders
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Other anxiety disorders
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Depressive disorders

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Coming here gave me the tools I needed to overcome my problems with anorexia. For the first time in my life, I have self-esteem and confidence. I owe my health and my life to Carolina House, and will always be grateful for how much they helped me!

– a former resident