Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa is generally considered a psychological (or "mental") illness. It is also included in the section about Digestive Disorders because some courses require knowledge of anorexia nervosa as part of "food and digestion" study units.

Anorexia Nervosa is an extreme, obsessive, desire to lose weight that a person acts on - potentially to the point of starvation.

The most common occurrence of anorexia nervosa is in Western ("First World", i.e. generally wealthy) countries among female adolescents, typically teenagers, through to early twenties. Some men are also be affected, though less commonly.

Causes of anorexia nervosa:

As applies to many psychological and psychiatric conditions, identifying the root cause of any particular case of anorexia nervosa is extremely difficult.
Individuals affected by this condition tend to be highly motivated and are often also highly intelligent and well able to disguise their efforts to lose weight excessively.

Possible "causes" listed by many sources include:

  • Motivation to lose excessive weight due to false perception of own body weight or shape as "fat" and generally unattractive.
  • Phobia of becoming overweight (i.e. in their view "unattractive").
  • Self-hatred, or (milder, though still extreme) dislike of oneself, or some aspect of the self
  • Family / relationship issues
  • Rejection of adult sexuality.

Symptoms & Effects of anorexia nervosa:

  • Starving oneself - possibly using a wide range of techniques,
    such as:
    • avoiding eating, e.g. pretending to have already eaten (elsewhere)
    • self-induced vomiting to prevent digestion of food stuffs
    • excessive use of laxatives to minimise digestion of food stuffs.

This can lead to multiple adverse effects, including:

  • Severe weight loss
  • Amenorrhoea (in females)
  • Death by starvation

Medical Treatments for anorexia nervosa generally focus on persuading the patient to consume sufficient food to maintain health and a normal body weight. Ideally techniques involve reasoning and persuasion, e.g. discussing what a healthy weight is and the weight below which health is adversely affected, especially for a person of the patient's own height, age, and gender. General education about diet, nutrition and exercise may also be helpful. Psychotherapy may be used to address related conditions, e.g. any emotional disturbances underlying the person's anorexia nervosa.
In extreme cases, and especially if the person is legally a "child" and so in many countries unable to legally refuse treatment, residential care may be recommended. Special facilities in which all forms of treatment considered appropriate exist at the same location and the person is under constant supervision and his or her intake of food and beverages monitored may be used. Such facilities may use a wide range of techniques, from gentle persuasion to force-feeding.

Anorexia Nervosa is widely recognised as an extremely distressing condition - not only for those affected but also for their friends and families, for others (underweight individuals) incorrectly labeled as "anorexics", and for everyone involved in any form of unwanted "treatment". However well-intended treatment may be, it is difficult to imagine the additional distress caused by the isolation felt by a person as a result of not being trusted by others, of negative labeling, and possibly even the perception of incarceration called "residential care". It is also difficult to imagine how anorexia nervosa (or even just diagnosis or suspicion of this) as a young person might affect someone later in his or her life.

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