Anorexia nervosa, commonly referred to simply as anorexia, is one type of eating disorder. More importantly, it is also a psychological disorder. Anorexia is a condition that goes beyond concern about obesity or out-of-control dieting. A person with anorexia often initially begins dieting to lose weight. Over time, the weight loss becomes a sign of mastery and control. The drive to become thinner is actually secondary to concerns about control and/or fears relating to one's body.
The individual continues the ongoing cycle of restrictive eating, often accompanied by other behaviors such as excessive exercising or the overuse of diet pills to induceloss of appetite, and/or diuretics, laxatives, or enemas in order to reduce body weight, often to a point close to starvation in order to feel a sense of control over his or her body. This cycle becomes an obsession and, in this way, is similar to an addiction.
Approximately 95% of those affected by anorexia are female, most often teenage girls, but males can develop the disorder as well. While anorexia typically begins to manifest itself during early adolescence, it is also seen in young children and adults. In the U.S. and other countries with high economic status, it is estimated that about one out of every 100 adolescent girls has the disorder.
Caucasians are more often affected than people of other racial backgrounds, and anorexia is more common in middle and upper socioeconomic groups. According to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), other statistics about this disorder include the fact that an estimated 0.5%-3.7% of women will suffer from this disorder at some point in their lives. About 0.3% of men are thought to develop anorexia in their lifetimes.
Many experts consider people for whom thinness is especially desirable, or a professional requirement (such as athletes, models, dancers, and actors), to be at risk for eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa. Health-care professionals are usually encouraged to present the facts about the dangers of anorexia through education of their patients and of the general public as a means of preventing this and other eating disorders.
Anorexia can have dangerous psychological and behavioral effects on all aspects of an individual's life and can affect other family members as well.
The individual can become seriously underweight, which can lead to depression and social withdrawal.
- The individual can become irritable and easily upset and have difficulty interacting with others.
- Sleep can become disrupted and lead to fatigue during the day.
- Attention and concentration can decrease.
- Most individuals with anorexia become obsessed with food and thoughts of food. They think about it constantly and become compulsive about eating rituals. They may collect recipes, cut their food into tiny pieces, prepare elaborate calorie-laden meals for other people, or hoard food. Additionally, they may exhibit other obsessions and/or compulsions related to food, weight, or body shape that meet the diagnostic criteria for an obsessive compulsive disorder.
- Other psychiatric problems are also common in people with anorexia nervosa, including affective (mood) disorders, anxiety disorders, and personality disorders.
- Generally, individuals with anorexia are compliant in every other aspect of their life except for their relationship with food. Sometimes, they are overly compliant, to the extent that they lack adequate self-perception. They are eager to please and strive for perfection. They usually do well in school and may often overextend themselves in a variety of activities. The families of anorexics often appear to be "perfect". Physical appearances are important to the anorexia sufferer. Performance in other areas is stressed as well, and they are often high achievers in many areas.
- While control and perfection are critical issues for individuals with anorexia, aspects of their life other than their eating habits are often found to be out of control as well. Many have, or have had at some point in their lives, addictions to alcohol, drugs, or gambling. Compulsions involving sex, exercising, housework, and shopping are not uncommon. In particular, people with anorexia often exercise compulsively to speed the weight-loss process.
- Symptoms of anorexia in men tend to co-occur with other psychological problems and more commonly follow a period of being overweight than in women. Men with anorexia also tend to be more likely to have a distorted body image.
- Compared to symptoms in men, symptoms of anorexia in women tend to more frequently include a general displeasure with their body and a possibly stronger desire to be thin. Women with anorexia also tend to experience more perfectionism and cooperativeness.
Due to the growth and development inherent during childhood and adolescence, symptoms and signs of anorexia in children and teenagers can include a slowing of the natural increase in height or a slowed increase in development of other body functions.
All of these features can negatively affect one's daily activities. Diminished interest in previously preferred activities can result. Some individuals also have symptoms that meet the diagnostic criteria for a major depressive disorder.
At this time, no definite cause of anorexia nervosa has been determined. However, research within the medical and psychological fields continues to explore possible causes.
Studies suggest that a genetic (inherited) component may play a more significant role in determining a person's susceptibility to anorexia than was previously thought. Researchers are currently attempting to identify the particular gene or genes that might affect a person's tendency to develop this disorder, and preliminary studies suggest that a gene located at chromosome 1p seems to be involved in determining a person's susceptibility to anorexia nervosa.
Other evidence had pinpointed a dysfunction in the part of the brain, the hypothalamus (which regulates certain metabolic processes), as contributing to the development of anorexia.
Other studies have suggested that imbalances in neurotransmitter (brain chemicals involved in signaling and regulatory processes) levels in the brain may occur in people suffering from anorexia.
Feeding problems as an infant, a general history of undereating, and maternal depressive symptoms tend to be risk factors for developing anorexia. Other personal characteristics that can predispose an individual to the development of anorexia include a high level of negative feelings and perfectionism.
For many individuals with anorexia, the destructive cycle begins with the pressure to be thin and attractive. A poor self-image compounds the problem. People who suffer from any eating disorder are more likely to have been the victim of childhood abuse.
While some professionals remain of the opinion that family discord and high demands from parents can put a person at risk for developing this disorder, the increasing evidence against the idea that families cause anorexia has mounted to such an extent that professional mental-health organizations no longer ascribe to that theory. Possible factors that protect against the development of anorexia include high maternal body mass index (BMI) as well as personal high self-esteem.
Anorexia may be treated in an outpatient setting or hospitalization may be necessary. For an individual with severe weight loss that has impaired organ function, hospital treatment must initially focus on correction of malnutrition, and intravenous feeding or tube feeding that goes past the mouth may be required. A gain ofbetween 1 to 3 pounds per week is a safe and attainable goal when malnutrition must be corrected.
Sometimes weight gain is achieved using schedules for eating, decreased physical activity, and increased social activity, either on an inpatient or outpatient basis. For individuals who have suffered from anorexia for several years, the goals of treatment may need to be achieved more slowly in order to prevent the anorexia sufferer from relapsing as a result of being overwhelmed by treatment.
The overall treatment of anorexia, however, must focus on more than weight gain. There are a variety of treatment approaches dependent upon the resources available to the individual. Because of increasing insurance restrictions, many patients find that a short hospitalization followed by a day treatment program is an effective alternative to longer inpatient programs.
Most individuals, however, initially seek outpatient treatment involving psychological as well as medical intervention. It is common to engage a multidisciplinary treatment team consisting of a medical-care provider, a dietician or nutritionist, and a mental-health-care provider.
Different kinds of psychological therapy have been employed to treat people with anorexia. Individual therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, group therapy, and family therapy have all been successful in the treatment of anorexia. In adolescents, research shows that the Maudsley model of family therapy can be particularly effective in treating this disorder in this population.
In contrast to many past approaches to treatment, the Maudsley model approaches the family of the individual with anorexia as part of the solution rather than part of the reason their loved one has the disorder. With ongoing specific guidance from the professional mental-health team, this approach has the family actively help their loved one eat in a more healthy manner.
Any appropriate treatment approach addresses underlying issues of control, perfectionism, and self-perception. Family dynamics are explored. Nutritional education provides a healthy alternative to weight management for the patient. Group counseling or support groups may assist the individual in the recovery process. The ultimate goal of treatment should be for the individual to accept herself/himself and lead a physically and emotionally healthy life.
While no medications have been identified that can definitively reduce the compulsion to starve themselves, olanzapine (Zyprexa, Zydis), risperidone (Risperdal), and quetiapine (Seroquel) are medications that are also used as mood stabilizers and to treat schizophrenia that may be useful in treating anorexia.
These medications may also help increase weight and to manage some of the emotional symptoms like anxiety and depression that can accompany anorexia. Some of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant drugs have been shown to be helpful in weight maintenance after weight has been gained, as well as having beneficial effects on the mood and anxiety symptoms that may be associated with the condition.