What is anorexia nervosa?
Anorexia nervosa is often referred to as “anorexia” for short. People suffering from anorexia obsess over the amount of food they consume. These individuals tend to be severely underweight, yet the idea of gaining weight terrifies them. Generally, anorexia is a sign of inner emotional issues and is used as a strategy for gaining control over situations that the victim feels he or she does not have control over. Although both men and women can become anorexic, it is much more common in females. People who are anorexic:
• Are underweight
• Do not want to reach a healthy, average body weight
• Are terrified of weight gain
• Believe they are overweight (although they are not)
• Skip 3 or more periods sequentially
Who becomes anorexic?
As stated above, both men and women can become anorexic; however, women make up between 85 and 95 percent of the anorexic population. In the past, people believed that women who are not Caucasian are significantly less likely to become anorexic due to cultural differences; however, the disease seems to reach people of a variety of cultures. Researchers are unsure of whether immigrants in the United States become anorexic due to the pressures of American society, due to the anxiety of being immersed within a new culture, or for different reasons.
What causes anorexia?
Anorexia has multiple causes. It is important to remember that eating disorders are both physical and mental in nature. Below are some of the factors that can influence the development of anorexia:
• Culture. In the United States, many women feel like they must be very thin in order to be beautiful. They are constantly exposed to pictures, movies, and TV shows that have women with seemingly perfect bodies. Men are also exposed to the masculine versions of what has been deemed as attractive by the majority.
• Families. Anorexia tends to run along family lines among females. Also, there are certain parental behaviors that can increase the likelihood of children developing anorexia. Some of these behaviors include: frequent dieting, commenting about the child’s body, and placing an emphasis on physical appearance.
• Life changes or stressful events. Significant life events can sometimes cause an eating disorder. These events can be either positive or negative.
• Personality traits. People with low self-esteem are at a greater risk of developing anorexia. Those who strive for perfection or who reach for incredibly difficult goals also tend to have personalities that make them more prone to anorexia.
• Biology. Biological issues can also cause anorexia. Anorexia tends to be genetic. Additionally, hormones or chemical imbalances can play a role.
What are the signs of anorexia?
People suffering from anorexia are usually underweight, and they may do the following things to keep from gaining weight:
• Purging food
• Taking laxatives or other pills to cause excretion
• Consuming diet pills
• Minimizing food consumption
• Exercising too frequently, regardless of health condition
• Being preoccupied with the number of calories in food
• Only eating particular types of food
• Playing with food to make it look like something has been eaten
Anorexia patients generally believe they are heavier than they actually are. They may wear very loose clothes. They are terrified of getting bigger and may obsessively step on the scale.
Friends and family may see a change in people who are anorexic. They tend to focus only on weight and how food can influence weight. Additionally, they might become irritable and reclusive. Further issues that are sometimes associated with anorexia are:
• Drug abuse
• Heart or brain problems
• Issues with physical growth
What happens to your body with anorexia?
Food is necessary for energy. When the body does not have the energy it needs, it tries to expend as little energy as possible in order to conserve its resources. This causes normal bodily functions to slow.
Can someone with anorexia get better?
People can recover from anorexia with the help of health professionals. These professionals should:
• Assist the patient with weight gain
• Assist the patient with any underlying psychological struggles
• Assist the patient with the elimination of related negative thoughts and behaviors
All of these steps must occur. If they do not, the patient may relapse and once again suffer from anorexia.
Can a woman who had anorexia in the past still get pregnant?
If a woman is currently suffering with anorexia, she may stop menstruating and in turn will probably stop ovulating. This greatly decreases the likelihood of getting pregnant; however, women who are maintaining a reasonable weight and menstruating will have much less of an issue in trying to get pregnant.
Can anorexia hurt a baby when the mother is pregnant?
Anorexia increases the risk of pregnancy loss. Pregnant women suffering with anorexia are also at a greater risk of having an early birth. They may have to have a C-section, and they also may have psychological difficulties after delivery.
What should I do if I think someone I know has anorexia?
There are some things you can do if you think someone you know is suffering from anorexia.
1. Talk about it. Find some time to speak with your friend alone and in a setting that is free of distractions.
2. Share your anxiety. Talk about the behaviors your friend is doing that are making you nervous. Be truthful about your feelings and note that these behaviors may suggest a deeper issue.
3. Encourage him or her to get help. It can be helpful to assist the person in his or her search for an appropriate doctor. You could also assure him or her that you are willing to attend the appointment as well.
4. Don’t fight. Sometimes, pushing too hard can make you appear to be overbearing. If your friend becomes upset, try not to start an argument. Assure him or her that you will listen if needed.
5. Do not try to invoke negative emotions. Making your friend feel guilty or inadequate will not help the situation.
6. Recognize that the issue is complicated. People who are suffering from eating disorders cannot stop their behaviors without help.
7. Reiterate your willingness to be supportive. Your friend should know that you will be there to support him or her.
Compliments of Kshamica Nimalasuriya MD, MPH
Preventive Medicine & Public Health