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Anorexia and Bulimia Risk Factors
Eating disorders are classified as a mental health disorder in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition).
Previously only three diagnoses types were listed in the DSM-5 there are currently eight types of eating disorder diagnoses listed in its updated version. For the purposes of this text, however, we will focus on two of the original diagnoses: anorexia nervosa (AN) and bulimia nervosa (BN). There are a number of risk factors that have the propensity to affect teens struggling with anorexia or bulimia, some of which overlap while other risk factors are specific each respective eating disorder.
Anorexia nervosa is characterized by restricting one’s food intake to the point of malnutrition. This can result in significant weight loss, inability to maintain appropriate body weight in relation to his or her height and age, and in many cases distorted body image. Although anorexia most frequently begins during one’s adolescence, it can affect people of all ages. There are specific risk factors that can increase one’s chance of developing anorexia. Some of the risk factors include:
- 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 become 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 (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, this can put teenagers at a higher risk for anorexia.
Certain physical symptoms associated with anorexia can include any of the following examples:
- Circulation problems (i.e. feeling cold all the time)
- Sleep difficulties
- Irregular or lack of menstruation
- Impaired immune functioning
- Dental complications: cavities, tooth sensitivity, enamel erosion
- Gastrointestinal discomfort: constipation, acid reflux
- Low blood pressure
- Irregular heart rhythms
The complications that can arise from anorexia can be complex and long lasting. When a teen with anorexia becomes severely malnourished, every organ in his or her body can be damaged. In the most severe cases, anorexia can lead to death. Should there be any concern that your teen may be struggling with anorexia, seek help as soon as possible.
Bulimia Risk Factors
Bulimia nervosa is an emotional eating disorder that involves excessive eating episodes in a short period of time (bingeing) followed by purging (i.e. self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse, and/ or extreme exercise). There are several risk factors that can increase the possible development of bulimia. These can include the following:
- Neurochemical imbalances: co-morbid mental health illnesses such as anxiety disorders, depression and/ or other psychological issues may increase one’s risk of developing bulimia.
- Environmental stressors: exposure to trauma and/ or abuse can increase the risk of developing bulimia.
- Genetics: individuals that have family members who have had an eating disorder may be somewhat predisposed to developing bulimia.
Eating disorders are serious illnesses that can lead to severe consequences. If you are concerned about yourself or a loved one that may be struggling with an eating disorder, do not delay in obtaining help.
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Anorexia nervosa. In: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-5. 5th ed. Arlington, Va.: American Psychiatric Association; 2013. http://dsm.psychiatryonline.org. Accessed Oct. 27, 2019.
Eating disorders. National Alliance on Mental Illness. https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions/Eating-Disorders/Overview. Accessed Oct. 27, 2019.
Harrington BC, et al. Initial evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. American Family Physician. 2015;91:46.
Mehler P. Anorexia nervosa in adults and adolescents: Medical complications and their management. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed Oct. 27, 2019.