How Anorexia Is Treated

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Anorexia is an eating disorder that can cause severe health problems and be life-threatening. This condition has the highest death rate among mental illnesses. People with anorexia have a five times higher risk of premature death and 18 times higher risk of death by suicide.

It’s important to treat anorexia as soon as possible, in order to prevent serious complications. The longer anorexia is left untreated, the worse it gets. Earlier diagnosis and treatment can help improve treatment outcomes.

Treatment goals for people with anorexia can include:

  • Helping the person understand the causes of their eating disorder 
  • Eliminating unhealthy eating patterns, such as binge eating, purging, or ritualistic eating
  • Improving their relationship with food and encouraging healthy eating patterns
  • Treating emotional issues such as low self-esteem, distorted body image, and harmful thoughts and beliefs
  • Restoring weight and stabilizing it
  • Treating other symptoms and health conditions caused by anorexia

Depending on the individual and their symptoms, treatment for anorexia can involve psychotherapy, medication, nutrition counseling, and in severe cases, hospitalization. Treatment may require multiple healthcare providers, such as psychotherapists, nutritionists, and physicians.

If you or a loved one have an eating disorder and need help, contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline for support at 1-800-931-2237.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy can help a person with anorexia understand their triggers, change their thoughts and behaviors, and improve the way they respond to stressful situations.

These are some of the types of therapy that can help treat anorexia:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This form of therapy can help address problematic thought patterns related to food and body weight and encourage healthier food-related behaviors.
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): ACT can encourage commitment to healthy eating patterns.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): This type of therapy can help the person recognize negative triggers and change the way they react to them. It can help with stress management, emotional regulation, and mindfulness.
  • Family-based treatment (FBT): Also known as the Maudsley method, this form of therapy is the leading treatment for anorexia in adolescents and young adults. It involves families in the nutrition rehabilitation and treatment process.
  • Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT): This type of therapy can help with the symptoms of anorexia by improving communication and interpersonal relationships.
  • Psychodynamic therapy: Psychodynamic therapy involves exploring the underlying fears and needs that are at the root of the person’s anorexia.

Medication

In addition to psychotherapy, people with anorexia may need to take antidepressant medication such as Prozac (fluoxetine) or antipsychotic medication such as Zyprexa (olanzapine) to treat emotional conditions such as anxiety and depression. 

One of the side effects of antipsychotic drugs is weight gain, which may be helpful in the treatment of anorexia.

Medication may also be required to treat any complications of anorexia, such as heart or bone conditions.

Nutrition Counseling

In addition to losing weight, people with anorexia may not be getting all the nutrition they require to stay healthy. 

Nutrition counseling can help them eat healthier, restore their weight, improve their relationship with food, and understand the importance of a healthy, balanced diet. It can also treat any nutrition deficiencies, such as vitamin or mineral deficiencies, with food and nutrition supplements.

Hospitalization

Depending on how severe the person’s condition is, hospital care may be required. 

People with the following conditions may require hospitalization for intensive care or frequent monitoring:

Outpatient treatment may be an option for people who are psychiatrically and medically stable, if their symptoms are under control and they don’t require constant monitoring.

Complications of Treatment

Anorexia treatment can lead to a complication known as refeeding syndrome, which can be life-threatening. This occurs when a person who is severely malnourished receives nourishment and is unable to metabolize it properly.

Refeeding syndrome can lead to:

  • Edema (body swelling)
  • Heart failure
  • Lung failure
  • Gastrointestinal difficulties
  • Severe muscle weakness
  • Delirium

These are some of the risk factors for refeeding syndrome:

  • Being severely malnourished
  • Being severely underweight (below 15% of the median BMI for adults or 70% of the median BMI for adolescents)
  • Losing a lot of weight in a very short amount of time (over 10% to 15% of total body mass in three to six months)
  • Having had little or no calorie intake for over 10 days
  • Having had refeeding syndrome in the past
  • Drinking considerable amounts of alcohol
  • Having abnormal electrolyte levels
  • Misusing medication like diet pills, diuretics, laxatives, and insulin

People with refeeding syndrome may require hospitalization, where their calorie intake will be increased gradually until they gain weight and their electrolyte levels stabilize. Even after they are discharged, they may require continued medical care to ensure that their brain, heart, and bone health are restored.

How to Make Your Treatment Most Effective

Here are some steps that can help make treatment for anorexia more effective:

  • Seek help: A person with anorexia may have difficulty admitting they have a problem. Recognizing it in yourself or a loved one and seeking treatment immediately can help prevent complications and fatalities.
  • Get the appropriate treatment: The treatment required can depend on the person’s symptoms and circumstances. It can sometimes involve multiple healthcare providers. It’s important to treat the physical and emotional symptoms of anorexia.
  • Follow treatment guidelines: Going for medical checkups regularly, taking medication as prescribed, and attending therapy sessions can help improve treatment outcomes and reduce the risk of relapse.
  • Check on local resources: Support groups and other local resources can help people with anorexia or their loved ones cope with the condition.

A Word From Verywell

If you or someone you love is struggling with anorexia, it is important to remember that help is available. While it can be difficult, recovery is possible. Talk to your health care provider or a mental health professional about your treatment options.

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