What is Anorexia?

Thin is beautiful. This is the message that the fashion and film industries, magazines and the diet industry constantly send. And, to emulate their idols, women and men strive very hard to control their weight through inappropriate dieting.

The dieting can become compulsive. It is then that it transforms into anorexia nervosa, more commonly simply called anorexia, and constitutes a serious threat to the health and well-being of the sufferer.

Anorexia nervosa: an eating disorder

In simple terms, anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterised by the intentional limitation of food intake driven by a seemingly uncontrollable desire to avoid gaining weight and to be thin. It results in the sufferer becoming emaciated and can lead to serious complications caused by malnutrition. In extreme cases, the result is death.

Causes of anorexia

The causes of anorexia are not fully understood. There seems to be no single trigger for the condition; a number of factors are involved:

  • Social pressure – in the Western world, great emphasis is placed on physical appearance and the media, the fashion industry and the film industry combine to create the impression that being thin is attractive. This leads to many young girls dieting to ensure that they are thin and therefore "acceptable". Some activities, like ballet and gymnastics, also require participants to have slight physiques so that those who take part feel compelled to be thin.
  • Stressful events – anorexia can be triggered by traumatic events. The death of someone close, a marriage break-up, examinations, loss of a job and even the onset of puberty can bring on anorexic episodes.
  • Genetics – research suggests that those who have a parent or sibling who is anorexic have a higher probability than others of becoming anorexic too.
  • Imbalance of chemicals in the brain – studies have found that some anorexics have an imbalance in chemicals in those parts of the brain that control appetite and digestion, emotion and risk and reward responses.
  • Environment – difficult personal relationships, living in a dysfunctional family and a history of abuse or bullying may also contribute to an individual becoming anorexic.

Who is most at risk?

Statistics show that, while anorexia has the potential to strike at any age, adolescent women are most at risk. However, males also suffer from anorexia, but only at a rate of about 10% of that of females.

Those most likely to succumb to anorexia exhibit the following traits:

  • Obsessive about rules, which causes them to control their behaviour and to be overly inhibited.
  • Perfectionist, setting high standards which leads to shame and disappointment if they are not achieved.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Excessively worried about the future.
  • Have fixed ideas about diet, health and beauty.
  • Disposed towards depression or have had anxiety disorders.

Signs of anorexia

There are several signs that point to the possibility of anorexia. They are mostly physical and can be observed:

  • Extreme loss of weight.
  • Over-exercise.
  • Not eating or refusal to eat.
  • Hair loss.
  • Tooth decay and bad breath.
  • Swollen hands and feet.
  • Fatigue, dizziness and restlessness.
  • Low blood pressure and low body temperature.
  • Abnormal heartbeat.
  • Increase in facial hair and fine hair growth over the body.
  • Brittle nails.
  • Bloated stomach.
  • Cold hands.
  • Dry skin.
  • Depression.
  • Lack of emotion.

Prognosis

Without treatment, anorexia can lead to a number of serious physical problems – even death. These include:

  • Damage to the heart caused by irregular and low heart rates.
  • Kidney problems caused by dehydration, a common side effect of anorexia.
  • Growth retardation.
  • Blood problems caused by a reduced count in red and white blood cells.
  • Risk of bone fractures due to osteoporosis and osteopenia.

Treatment

Early access to professional help is important if anorexia is to be treated successfully. Though significant results may take time – weeks or months – the improvement in quality of life for sufferers and those around them is well worth the effort.

Anorexia treatment is tailored to the individual and usually comprises a combination of psychotherapy (like cognitive behaviour therapy), nutrition counselling, family counselling and medication. Severe cases may require hospitalisation.

Treatment is effective but results will vary from patient to patient. It is frequently a long-term process during which there may be moments of relapse, particularly at times of heightened stress.

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