Anorexia (an-o-REK-see-uh) nervosa — often simply called anorexia — is an eating disorder characterized by an abnormally low body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of weight. People with anorexia place a high value on controlling their weight and shape, using extreme efforts that tend to significantly interfere with their lives.
To prevent weight gain or to continue losing weight, people with anorexia usually severely restrict the amount of food they eat. They may control calorie intake by vomiting after eating or by misusing laxatives, diet aids, diuretics or enemas. They may also try to lose weight by exercising excessively. No matter how much weight is lost, the person continues to fear weight gain.
Anorexia isn’t really about food. It’s an extremely unhealthy and sometimes life-threatening way to try to cope with emotional problems. When you have anorexia, you often equate thinness with self-worth.
Anorexia, like other eating disorders, can take over your life and can be very difficult to overcome. But with treatment, you can gain a better sense of who you are, return to healthier eating habits and reverse some of anorexia’s serious complications.
The physical signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa are related to starvation. Anorexia also includes emotional and behavioral issues involving an unrealistic perception of body weight and an extremely strong fear of gaining weight or becoming fat.
It may be difficult to notice signs and symptoms because what is considered a low body weight is different for each person, and some individuals may not appear extremely thin. Also, people with anorexia often disguise their thinness, eating habits or physical problems.
Physical signs and symptoms of anorexia may include:
• Extreme weight loss or not making expected developmental weight gains
• Thin appearance
• Abnormal blood counts
• Dizziness or fainting
• Bluish discoloration of the fingers
• Hair that thins, breaks or falls out
• Soft, downy hair covering the body
• Absence of menstruation
• Constipation and abdominal pain
• Dry or yellowish skin
• Intolerance of cold
• Irregular heart rhythms
• Low blood pressure
• Swelling of arms or legs
• Eroded teeth and calluses on the knuckles from induced vomiting
Some people who have anorexia binge and purge, similar to individuals who have bulimia. But people with anorexia generally struggle with an abnormally low body weight, while individuals with bulimia typically are normal to above normal weight.
Emotional and behavioral symptoms
Behavioral symptoms of anorexia may include attempts to lose weight by:
• Severely restricting food intake through dieting or fasting
• Exercising excessively
• Bingeing and self-induced vomiting to get rid of food, which may include the use of laxatives, enemas, diet aids or herbal products
Emotional and behavioral signs and symptoms may include:
• Preoccupation with food, which sometimes includes cooking elaborate meals for others but not eating them
• Frequently skipping meals or refusing to eat
• Denial of hunger or making excuses for not eating
• Eating only a few certain “safe” foods, usually those low in fat and calories
• Adopting rigid meal or eating rituals, such as spitting food out after chewing
• Not wanting to eat in public
• Lying about how much food has been eaten
• Fear of gaining weight that may include repeated weighing or measuring the body
• Frequent checking in the mirror for perceived flaws
• Complaining about being fat or having parts of the body that are fat
• Covering up in layers of clothing
• Flat mood (lack of emotion)
• Social withdrawal
• Reduced interest in sex
Anorexia can have numerous complications. At its most severe, it can be fatal. Death may occur suddenly — even when someone is not severely underweight. This may result from abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias) or an imbalance of electrolytes — minerals such as sodium, potassium and calcium that maintain the balance of fluids in your body.
Other complications of anorexia include:
• Heart problems, such as mitral valve prolapse, abnormal heart rhythms or heart failure
• Bone loss (osteoporosis), increasing the risk of fractures
• Loss of muscle
• In females, absence of a period
• In males, decreased testosterone
• Gastrointestinal problems, such as constipation, bloating or nausea
• Electrolyte abnormalities, such as low blood potassium, sodium and chloride
• Kidney problems
If a person with anorexia becomes severely malnourished, every organ in the body can be damaged, including the brain, heart and kidneys. This damage may not be fully reversible, even when the anorexia is under control.
In addition to the host of physical complications, people with anorexia also commonly have other mental health disorders as well. They may include:
• Depression, anxiety and other mood disorders
• Personality disorders
• Obsessive-compulsive disorders
• Alcohol and substance misuse
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