What is anorexia?
Anorexia nervosa, simply known as anorexia is an eating disorder that mainly affects young girls around the age of 16-18, but it can affect anyone.
It is normal for people to be worried about their weight, especially women but people who have anorexia are obsessed with their weight and being thin. They therefore lose a lot of weight so that they are below the normal weight for their age and height.
Even when they have lost weight people with anorexia still see themselves as overweight and so refuse to eat or eat very little, they may also exercise all the the time to try and burn off more calories. As time goes on people with anorexia may develop symptoms of bulimia such as, using laxativesor making themselves sick to lose weight. However, unlike people with ‘pure’ bulimia, their weight will remain low.
The eating disorders association estimates that about 165,000 people in the UK have eating disorders with 10% dying as a result, but experts also fear this figure could be higher.
What causes anorexia?
People can develop anorexia for all sorts of reasons, though there usually is an underlying emotional or psychological disorder which is the cause. Puberty, deaths in the family, parents divorce, a relationship break-up, bullying and other stresses are all potential triggers of anorexia. People with anorexia tend to believe that their life will be improved if they were thin.
The increase in the number of people with eating disorders has also been blamed on super-thin models. The media constantly advertise being slim as beautiful and fat as unattractive and with the many miracle diets now promoted people are constantly trying to reach their ideal weight.
Anorexia can begin with a normal diet which is then carried to extremes, with sufferers eating as little as possible and finding their whole life revolves around food. You might also be more at risk of developing anorexia if a family member has previously been affected by an eating disorder.
What symptoms are linked with anorexia?
Warning signs that someone might be suffering with anorexia could include any of the following:
- Weight loss, that may be hidden by the sufferer wearing baggy clothes.
- Fear of putting on weight.
- Obsession about food or calories and with body shape or size.
- Refusal to eat.
- Denial of hunger.
- Excessive exercising.
- Fainting spells.
- Greater amounts of hair on the body or the face due to a lack of protein in the diet.
- Always feeling the cold.
- Lack of concentration, moodiness and difficulty sleeping.
- Dry skin.
- Absent or irregular periods.
- Loss of scalp hair.
What is the difference between anorexia and bulimia?
The main difference between the two is people with bulimia usually manage to keep their weight within a healthy limit. This is because they binge eat (eat a lot of food at once) and this will often include eating fattening foods, for example they may eat a few cakes at one time. They then feel guilty and so make themselves sick or will take laxatives. However, people with anorexia starve themselves and avoid high-calorie food so tend to lose a lot of weight.
How is anorexia diagnosed?
There are no specific tests available to diagnose anorexia, though your doctor may want to do a blood test to check for anaemia or other possible causes of weight loss. You should also be prepared for the possibility that your doctor may ask some strange questions.
It is usually friends or family members who will suddenly realise that something is wrong when they notice that not only has the sufferer lost weight but is continuing to do so. The sufferer will often deny they have a problem and will still believe they are overweight. If you are worried that someone you know is suffering with anorexia, make sure they get help but be gentle with the suggestion.
How is anorexia treated?
Treating anorexia can be difficult as the person suffering usually doesn’t believe they need help or treatment. Over 25% of people with anorexia become so weak that they require hospitalisation and they may need to be force fed. The main aim of treatment is to restore the person to a healthy weight, this is achieved by finding the underlying cause of anorexia and by helping the sufferer to get back to normal eating patterns. However, for treatment to be successful the person with anorexia must want to change and accept the help and support of family, friends and doctors.
People with anorexia will usually need counselling for a year or more to treat any mental health problems.
Medication, such as antidepressants may be necessary where depression is severe.
What happens if anorexia is untreated?
If the person suffering with anorexia doesn’t get help they might be at risk at death from starvation. Over time, a lack of food can also cause the following:
- An irregular heartbeat.
- Muscles to waste away.
- Kidney failure.
- Osteoporosis, due to a lack of calcium.
As people who suffer from anorexia are usually depressed they are also at an increased risk of committing suicide.