What is anorexia nervosa? 

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder. People with anorexia constantly think about restricting calories. They don't want to gain weight. People with this condition often have dangerously low body weights. They may imagine their bodies are much bigger than they actually are. Anorexia often begins during the teenage years. But, it can happen at any age and in all genders and ethnicities. People with anorexia use the condition to cope with emotional problems. They connect their self-worth with thinness.

Causes of anorexia nervosa

Doctors don't know exactly what causes anorexia. They think it's likely a combination of different factors that can influence whether you develop the condition. These factors can include:

  • Obsessive-compulsive traits and anxiety
  • Cultural influences, including peer pressure to be thin
  • Genetic tendency toward perfectionism and being sensitive

Risk factors for anorexia nervosa

Anorexia is more common among women and girls. Men and boys can also have the condition. If you have a close relative, such as a parent, sibling or child, with the disease, you're at greater risk for developing it. People who diet regularly are also more likely to have anorexia. People who have undergone major stress are also at greater risk. Stressful events might include a new job, the end of a relationship or the death of a loved one.

Symptoms of anorexia nervosa

The primary symptom of anorexia is simply that you're starving yourself. You might not eat enough because you're scared you may gain weight. It's important to see a doctor immediately. Many people with anorexia believe they're only good enough if they're thin.

Other symptoms include:

  • Constipation
  • Being underweight
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Abnormal heartbeat
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Swollen legs or arms
  • Lack of menstrual cycle
  • Obsession with weight gain

Diagnosis of anorexia nervosa

A doctor or therapist looks at certain things when they diagnose anorexia. First, doctors do a physical exam to check how healthy your body is. They may want to do blood tests to see if you have any imbalances. To diagnose anorexia, the doctor needs to see if you're restricting your food. People with anorexia have body weights below what's typical for their age, sex, physical health and development.

You may also talk to a mental health professional. A therapist might ask about your fears regarding weight gain. They can also determine whether you understand the dangers of being underweight. They may also look for emotional, behavioral and physical qualities common in anorexia. You don't have to show all the traits to have an eating disorder.

Treatments for anorexia nervosa

Anorexia is often hard to treat. That's because starvation can rewire your brain. This can make it hard to return to normal eating habits. Rely on your doctors for help during treatment. You can also ask loved ones for support to encourage you through treatment and on to recovery.

Treatments include programs where treatment often begins for those with anorexia. At first, you may need medical stabilization. You may live at the treatment center to get help from mental health professionals. Dieticians can create meal plans for you. This starts the process of healing any damage the starvation caused.

Therapy can be a big part of the treatment process. If you go to a treatment program, you'll likely have therapy there. You can also go to appointments while living at home. Relapse is common with this condition. That means you experience periods without symptoms. Then symptoms return. Work closely with a therapist trained in eating disorders. They can help you address negative and unhealthy thoughts and patterns in your life.

Some doctors recommend antidepressant medication as part of the treatment process. Discuss this with your doctor. There can be side effects with these medicines.

It's common for people with anorexia to feel suicidal. If you have thoughts about harming yourself, contact your doctor right away. Or, call the National Suicide Prevention lifeline at (800) 273-8255. 

Recovery from anorexia nervosa

There's no way to prevent this condition. But, it's possible to get successful treatment. Recovery can be a long process. Try not to isolate yourself. Instead, find a support group. Confide in loved ones during this time. Try not to weigh yourself. Make it a goal to stick with the treatment plan from your doctor. You can return to a healthy weight and release the unhealthy thoughts and behaviors with time.