Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is a potentially deadly mental illness which manifests itself in the form of an eating disorder. The severe weight loss experienced by victims causes up to 20 percent of them to die within 20 years of developing the disease, either from long-term physical degradation or suicide. This makes anorexia nervosa the most lethal form of mental health disorder around.

It is important to remember that anorexia nervosa is not a side effect of voluntary dieting. Instead, it is the outward manifestation of complex psychological and emotional imbalances. Approximately 0.6% of Britons aged 16 years and older are afflicted with the disorder. Females account for more than two thirds of victims.

Anorexia nervosa affects people of all age and ethnicity, and the symptoms typically emerge during adolescence. Early detection and treatment is crucial for the treatment of the disease.

Poor body image is one of the primary triggers for anorexia nervosa. Image courtesy of Pixabay

Overview of anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is not about vanity. The urge is caused by an extreme fear of gaining weight or exceptionally poor body image. As such, people suffering from the disorder have an unhealthy obsession with weight, body shape and food.

As a result, people who develop anorexia nervosa are frequently compelled to impose severe dietary restrictions on themselves. This is often accompanied by excessive exercise, use of steroids (usually male), cosmetic surgery, and consumption of supplements – all done to achieve the never attainable perfect weight or body shape.

Over time, the lack of eating, or focus on specific group types, will lead to systemic malnourishment which will cause progressive degradation of the body’s organs, tissues and functions. Quick treatment is important to prevent any long-term damage to the body and ensure full recovery. Otherwise, patients might continue to experience slowed growth (for adolescents), gastrointestinal disorders, osteoporosis, chronic fatigue, bad skin and hair loss and cognitive impairment.

Victims of anorexia nervosa usually have other mental health disorders, such as obsessive compulsive disorder, depression and anxiety, which reinforce their already poor mental state to critical levels.

Since mental health disorders are sometimes tied to early childhood traumas such as abuse, neglect, violence and bullying, treatment of the disease require a holistic and customised approach to address all the deep seated psychological issues of patients.

Symptoms of anorexia nervosa

The symptoms of anorexia nervosa are not unique – they can be attributed to other diseases and lifestyle choices, which make early detection difficult, especially since victims tend to hide their disorders. However, a combination of several symptoms is usually sufficient for preliminary identification. The symptoms can be divided into three categories:

(i) Physical signs, such as extreme weight loss, chronic fatigue, mottled hands, cardiac issues, food intolerance, constipation, etc.

(ii) Behavioural signs, such as binge eating, excessive exercise, irrational dieting, self-harm, social withdrawal, etc.

(iii) Psychological signs, such as distorted body image, low self-esteem, anxiety during mealtimes, etc.

Treatment of anorexia nervosa

The treatment of the disorder is geared towards the following four objectives:

  • Reversing weight loss or weight gain and returning the body to its optimal weight band
  • Nourishing the body quickly to prevent any side effects to malnutrition
  • Managing mental issues to ensure the safety of the victims as well as the people around them
  • Establishing boundaries, good eating habits and a support network to prevent a relapse

A combination of medicine, vitamins, cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and family-based treatment (FBT) are used to achieve the objectives above.