What Is Anorexia Nervosa?

What Is Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa often referred to as anorexia, is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) as a chronic mental health illness that is categorized under the Disorder Class: Feeding and Eating Disorders. Anorexia is characterized “by an abnormally low body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight, and a distorted perception of weight.” Young people diagnosed with anorexia engage in a cycle of self-starvation that often results in malnutrition including a lack of essential minerals and nutrients. Anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents. 

Risk Factors

There is no single cause of anorexia but there are risk factors that increase the likelihood of anorexia developing. Risk factors that can increase one’s propensity for developing anorexia, include the following examples, provided by the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA):

  • Dieting and starvation: habitual dieting to the point of starvation can increase a teen’s potential for developing anorexia. Studies have shown that starvation impacts one’s brain functioning and one’s ability to make rational decisions. In turn, restrictive eating behaviors are perpetuated, and returning to healthy/ normal eating habits becomes increasingly difficult.
  • Genetics: Individuals with familial history of anorexia and/ or other eating disorders put certain people at higher risk of developing anorexia.
  • Transitions: emotional stress resulting from various life transitions (e.g., new school, move, death of a loved one, etc.) can increase the risk of anorexia.
  • Peer influence: teens going through puberty and adolescence face hormonal changes, increased peer pressure, and often internalize criticisms about appearance, which can put teenagers at a higher risk for anorexia. 

Though anorexia can manifest at any age, research suggests it most commonly develops during adolescence.

Signs and Symptoms

The Mayo Clinic provides examples of common symptoms that can manifest as a result of anorexia, including but not limited to the following: 

  • Thin appearance
  • Insomnia
  • Extreme weight loss
  • Not making expected developmental weight gains
  • Dizziness and/ or fainting
  • Abnormal blood counts
  • Fatigue
  • Thinning, brittle hair
  • Absence of menstruation
  • Dry and/ or yellowish skin
  • Irregular heart rhythms
  • Low blood pressure
  • Dehydration
  • Excessively exercising

Teens struggling with anorexia may exhibit behavioral warning signs such as skipping meals, over-exercising, obsessively reading nutritional information, constantly weighing themselves, regularly making excuses not to eat, denial of a problem despite excessive weight loss, etc. When a young person with anorexia becomes severely malnourished, every organ in his or her body can suffer irreparable damage and without proper treatment, anorexia can lead to life-threatening consequences.

For Information and Support

Every family in need of mental health treatment must select a program that will best suit the needs of their family. When one member of a family struggles, it impacts everyone in the family unit. To maximize the benefits of treatment we work closely with the entire family to ensure that everyone is receiving the support they need through these difficult times.

Seeking help is never easy, but you are not alone! If you or someone you know needs mental health treatment, we strongly encourage you to reach out for help as quickly as possible. It is not uncommon for many mental health difficulties to impact a person’s life, in the long term. Pursuing support at the beginning of one’s journey can put the individual in the best position to learn how to manage themselves in a healthy way so they can go on to live happy and fulfilling lives.

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