Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia is an eating disorder. People with it obsesses about their weight. Those affected have an extreme fear of gaining weight or becoming fat even though they are severely underweight for their height. About 1% of women in the U.S. have this condition. It's most often seen in women in their late teens and twenties. A much smaller percentage of men also have this disorder.

Symptoms include extreme, low calorie diets, fasting, misusing medicines (like laxatives), and overexercising to lose weight. Some people eat enough calories, but induce vomiting or diarrhea. When taken to an extreme, these behaviors change the body’s chemistry. This can cause permanent damage to the brain, heart, kidneys, bones, and teeth. Anorexia can even be life-threatening.

Other symptoms include:

  • Severe weight loss

  • Confusion

  • Vomiting and diarrhea

  • Indigestion, acid reflux heartburn, belly pain

  • Blood in vomit or stool

  • Fast, slow, or irregular heart beat

  • Trouble breathing

  • Lack of energy

  • Low blood pressure, fainting

  • Seizures

  • Skin color changes, dry skin

  • Hair loss

  • In women, periods may stop or become irregular

Depression and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) can happen with anorexia. Suicide due to depression is a major cause of death in people with this illness.

Many factors that lead to anorexia. Certain personality traits such as low self-esteem and perfectionism are common. By focusing on weight loss, the person can ignore other life stressors that are too painful or seem impossible to solve. Anorexia runs in families. There is a 10 times increase risk for a girl to get this illness if a sister has anorexia. Changes in brain chemistry may also be a factor, as well as influence from family and peers.

Treatment involves individual, group therapy and family therapy. Underlying depression or OCD may need to be treated with medicines. Hospitalization is sometimes needed to stabilize dangerously low weights. A nutritionist can help to advise about proper diets and eating habits.

Home care

  • You and your healthcare provider will determine the amount of support you need.

  • In addition to seeing a therapist or counselor, talk about your feelings and thoughts with a friend or family member who supports you.

  • If you have been given a prescription medicine, be sure to take it as directed.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider, or as advised.

Call 911

Call 911 if any of these happen:

  • Trouble breathing

  • Confusion

  • Drowsiness or trouble waking

  • Fainting or loss of conscious

  • Rapid or very slow heart rate

  • Seizure

  • New chest pain that becomes more severe, lasts longer, or spreads into your shoulder, arm, neck, jaw, or back

  • Thoughts of harming yourself or another

When to seek medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these happen:

  • Worsening depression or anxiety

  • Feeling out of control or being unable to care for yourself

  • Continued weight loss

  • Yellow color of the skin or eyes

  • Dizziness, weakness

  • Belly pain

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