What Is Anorexia Nervosa?

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What Is Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa, often referred to as anorexia, is an eating disorder marked by restrictive eating, resulting in malnourishment and low body weight.

Those experiencing this disorder tend to have anxiety around gaining weight and distorted body perception. Eating disorders have an increased risk of medical complications, especially in contrast to other mental health ailments. This article will explore the symptoms, diagnosis, causes, and treatment of anorexia nervosa. 

If you or a loved one are coping with an eating disorder, 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.

Anorexia Nervosa Symptoms

The first step to healing or supporting someone you know who may be dealing with an eating disorder is to spot the symptoms.

Many mental health disorders tend to lack clear physical indicators of a diagnosis. Anorexia has several signs that are visible to the naked eye.

Considering that anorexia has a high mortality rate (due to the physical impacts of the disease as well as the increased possibility of suicide), learning the symptoms can help save lives.

Below are some of the symptoms of anorexia:

  • Fear of gaining weight
  • Consistent malnourishment due to restrictive dieting
  • Body dysmorphic disorder (i.e., when a person can't stop thinking about a perceived physical flaw, this often leads to anxiety and embarrassment)
  • A sense of self that is dependent upon body appearance

In addition to the above symptoms, experiencing this disorder for an extended period of time can lead to the following:

  • Osteoporosis (weakened bones)
  • Anemia (low red blood cell count)
  • Muscle atrophy (decreased muscle mass)
  • Heart damage
  • Brain damage
  • Infertility

It is important to remember that not everyone will experience every single symptom, and not everyone will develop the long-term ailments associated with anorexia. However, it is equally important to remember that healing is possible, and while this disorder is severe, the long-term consequences can be prevented by getting support. 

Types of Anorexia Nervosa

There are two types of anorexia: the restrictive subtype and the binge-purge subtype:

  1. The restrictive subtype of anorexia is marked by minimal consumption of food and intense restrictions on the types of foods consumed. An example of restrictive anorexia is someone who counts their calories, restricts their caloric intake to be significantly under the recommended amount, exercises excessively, and weighs themselves compulsively.
  2. The binge-purge subtype does include some of the characteristics of the restrictive type. For example, folks experiencing binge-purge anorexia may also engage in restrictive eating patterns, such as significantly limiting the foods and portions they eat. However, they will also binge eat and then purge the food by vomiting or using laxatives.

Diagnosing Anorexia Nervosa

Getting a proper diagnosis is incredibly important. Remember, this disease can be deadly. Spotting the signs and seeing a physician or mental health professional is crucial for getting the help needed.

Anorexia is identified by utilizing the DSM-5’s diagnostic criteria. A mental health professional will assess for physical indicators, including extremely low body weight, any issues with physical development, and clear risks for physical health. They will also assess for phobias of body changes or weight gain and intense attachment to body weight and appearance.

How Your Subtype Will Be Diagnosed

The subtype will be determined by behavior within the last three months. If the individual has not consistently experienced binge-eating and then purging behavior, they are diagnosed with the restrictive subtype of anorexia. If binge-eating and purging have reoccured consistently, then the individual will be diagnosed with the binge-purge subtype.

Differential diagnoses must be ruled out, meaning that the person exhibiting signs of anorexia is assessed for any other disorders or factors that could contribute to the presenting symptoms. Common differential diagnoses include medical conditions that contribute to one’s ability to eat and retain weight, major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, and substance use disorders.

Causes of Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia is caused by one’s environment, neurobiology, and genetic disposition. When it comes to environmental causes, an occupation, family unit, or culture with a heavy emphasis on one’s appearance and body weight can be a major risk factor in developing anorexia. 

The neurobiological causes of anorexia, meaning the brain structure of those experiencing this disorder, are essential to note. Specifically, serotonin levels are altered in the brains of those diagnosed with anorexia. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter that assists not only in regulating moods but also in regulating one’s appetite. 

The genetic component of anorexia has been proven through a series of studies conducted on twins, with one study showing that between 29% and 50% of identical twins in the study both developed anorexia. It is worth noting that identical twins are fertilized by a single sperm, resulting in the embryo splitting into two. 

Anorexia Nervosa Treatment

The most effective treatment plans for anorexia are multidimensional, often including personalized medical care, psychotherapy, medications, and even nutritional counseling. 

Medical Care

Personalized medical care can range from working with a doctor to heal the physical impacts of anorexia to receiving hospitalization when more intensive care is required.

More intensive care is determined by the severity of the presenting symptoms, the risk for suicide, and medical concerns like malnourishment and dehydration.

Psychotherapy

The suggested psychotherapy for healing anorexia is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This therapy guides the patient in looking at how their thoughts influence their behaviors. This therapy can help individuals identify distorted thoughts and create healthier ways of thinking.

Parents of children who have anorexia may also be referred to treatment. This can help parents develop a deeper understanding of anorexia and how to support their child in recovery.

If a mental health professional determines that the presenting cognitive symptoms could benefit from medication such as antidepressants, mood stabilizers, or antipsychotics, they may prescribe them to you. They could also be prescribed if a co-occurring mental health diagnosis is found.

Coping With Anorexia Nervosa

Living in a culture that emphasizes physical appearance, tends to idolize thin bodies, and normalizes diet culture can make coping with anorexia incredibly challenging. The first step in coping with anorexia is to find a qualified mental health professional because they can help you develop new ways of thinking and support you in finding additional help if needed.

Moreover, communal support can be incredibly helpful when coping with anorexia. Consider joining a support group or seeking out group therapy. If you’re not sure where to begin, contact the National Eating Disorders Association for support.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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