For many people anorexia conjures up images of highly emaciated young women who deliberately starve themselves to remain thin. It's a disturbing image that, while superficially accurate, is dangerously misleading.
The fact is that anorexia is a potentially life-threatening condition that affects both sexes – though it is much rarer in men. It is a compulsion that is tough to control, rather than a willing effort to restrict food intake. So, why do people suffer from anorexia?
What causes anorexia?
Despite the fact anorexia is estimated to be the third most common chronic illness among adolescents and that eating disorders, including anorexia, have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder, the causes of anorexia are still not fully understood. It is thought to be the result of a number of factors.
Through the media, we are constantly bombarded with images of skinny fashion models and film stars and are told that thin is beautiful. This is enhanced by the diet industry, which is always pressuring women (and men) to lose weight. This makes susceptible individuals highly conscious of their body image and leads them to take steps to imitate the thin women who appear on television screens and in fashion magazines. They resort to dieting, which in some cases is extreme and leads to anorexia.
Living in a family or environment that stresses appearance and activities like gymnastics and ballet that require participants to be lightly built also cause pressures that can trigger anorexia.
Statistics indicate that many anorexia sufferers tend to be overachievers or perfectionists. They feel enormous pressure either from others or themselves to perform at the highest level and if they are unable to meet their expectations they succumb to feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem that can precipitate anorexic behaviour.
Anorexia can be brought on by stressful life events. The death of a significant adult, the break-up of a relationship or a major change in circumstances are all factors that can lead to the onset of anorexia.
Anorexia sufferers often say that dieting helps to alleviate anxiety while eating increases their stress levels. They also tend to find it difficult to enjoy themselves and worry excessively about the consequences of their actions. Brain-imaging studies indicate that this could be the result of an imbalance in those parts of the brain that control emotion and reward and those that deal with future consequences. There also appears to be a difference in the functioning of the parts of the brain that control sensations, meaning that anorexics may not actually realise that they are hungry.
Whether these problems with brain functions are a cause or effect of anorexia is unclear, but they may make it more likely that anorexia will develop and be difficult to control.
Genetics and family history
There may be a genetic influence affecting the likelihood of developing anorexia. It is thought that changes in genes may be a factor. Also, according to research, an individual with a parent or sibling who has anorexia is significantly more likely to develop it than someone with no family history of the disorder.
If you suspect that you or a loved one is suffering from anorexia, it is vital that you seek help as soon as possible; your GP is the place to start. Anorexia often leads to other conditions like depression, osteoporosis, bowel problems, rapid tooth decay and anaemia. In extreme cases, without treatment, death can result. You need to understand that anorexia is a compulsive disorder and is not something that can normally be brought under control or cured without professional intervention.
Anorexia treatment often takes the form of counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy. Medication may also be necessary and, for serious cases, some time in hospital may be required. You may have to wait weeks or months to see significant improvement and full recovery may take years, and even then some sufferers may still experience difficulties, though they will live happier lives.