Anorexia Causes & Effects

Anorexia nervosa is a serious mental health condition that involves restricting food, which ultimately leads to significant weight loss. This desire to abstain from food is rooted in the fear and anxiety over gaining weight or the perception of becoming fat. Those with this mental illness will often go to extreme measures to prevent weight gain, even if it comes at the cost of one’s health. The use of laxatives, diuretics, and/or enemas are common in those with anorexia, as is the execution of ritualistic behaviors when it comes to preparing food or eating. Excessive exercising is also another way in which people with anorexia attempt to drastically decrease their weight. These pervasive feelings of fear and anxiety, coupled with harmful behaviors, are known to cause a number of detrimental mental and physical health risks that could lead to death if treatment is not sought and implemented.

There are two types of anorexia nervosa that can be diagnosed in a person. The restricting type, the most well-known form of anorexia, involves dieting, fasting, and excessive exercising. The other type of anorexia, known as the binge-eating/purging type, involves episodes of overeating followed by self-induced vomiting to eradicate food from the body. Both of these types include invasive, distorted perceptions of one’s appearance and body image. Often times, those with this disorder see food as dangerous, and any encouragement from others to eat is seen as threatening and counterproductive to the goal of achieving the lowest weight possible. Luckily, treatment is available for those suffering from this mental health condition. By integrating effective therapeutic interventions and treatment methods, individuals with anorexia nervosa can learn how to live healthy lives, free from the crippling effects of this serious disorder.

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Statistics

It is estimated that 24 million people suffer from eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa. Among adolescents, the third most common chronic illness diagnosed is anorexia nervosa, with the average age of sufferers being between 12 and 26 years old. Rates of anorexia nervosa among females, on the whole, is said to be nearly .05%. With regards to males who are anorexic, it is believed that 10% to 15% of those diagnosed with anorexia nervosa are male. However, this mental health condition is less common in males, and rates of anorexia nervosa are often unreported by male sufferers. Lastly, this disorder has a high mortality rate and can increase a person’s chances of developing self-harming behaviors, suicidal ideations, and attempting at suicide at some point. The reported suicide rate among those with anorexia accounts for 12 of every 100,000 suicides per year.

Causes and Risk Factors for Anorexia Nervosa

Eating disorder experts agree that a number of contributing factors lead to the development of anorexia nervosa. When trying to understand why and how someone develops this type of disordered eating, one must consider the following explanations:

Genetic: Individuals with a first-degree relative with disordered eating, an eating disorder, depressive disorder, or bipolar disorder are believed to have an increased risk of eventually displaying signs and symptoms associated with anorexia nervosa. Because of this link, it can be concluded that anorexia can be caused, in part, by a person’s genetic history. Additionally, studies have found that prevalence of this mental health condition is higher among identical twins when compared to rates of anorexia among fraternal twins.

Environmental: Experts believe that environments or cultures that place a strong emphasis on the importance of thinness can increase the likelihood of an individual developing anorexia nervosa. Additionally, certain occupations, such as those in the fashion industry or professional sports, render a greater susceptibility to anorexia due to the focus on physical appearance. Furthermore, individuals exposed to chronic stress, trauma, abuse, and/or neglect are said to be at risk for this disorder, as the restriction of food can be used as a means of controlling that which cannot be controlled (e.g. difficult or overwhelming emotions and/or physical pain caused by others). Lastly, for children and adolescents, being teased about weight can lead an individual to develop disordered eating as a means of losing weight to avoid bullying.

Risk Factors:

  • Being female
  • Family history of eating disorders or other mental illnesses
  • Preexisting mental illness or illnesses
  • Being in an environment or part of a culture that strongly values thinness
  • Exposure to chronic stress / trauma / abuse/ neglect
  • Being the victim of bullying

Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa

The signs and symptoms that indicate a person is suffering from anorexia nervosa can vary depending on the length of time an individual has been preoccupied with the thoughts and engaging in the behaviors associated with this mental health condition. If you are concerned that your friend or loved one is struggling with this debilitating disorder, note the presence of any of the following symptoms:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Refusing to eat
  • Making excuses for not eating
  • Rigid dieting or fasting
  • Restricting or limiting types of food consumed (e.g. eating only certain vegetables, etc.)
  • Denial of hunger
  • Engaging in ritualistic behaviors when preparing food (e.g., cutting food into small pieces, weighing food before eating, chewing food and then refusing to swallow, etc.)
  • Frequently weighing oneself
  • Binge-eating
  • Self-induced vomiting
  • Skipping meals
  • Wearing oversized clothing
  • Consuming laxatives, diuretics, or using enemas
  • Complaints about appearance
  • Constantly checking oneself in the mirror
  • Excessive exercise
  • Lying about food intake
  • Abusing substances

Physical symptoms:

  • Extreme weight loss / emaciated appearance
  • Failure to meet expected weight for age (adolescents only)
  • Failure to achieve physical developmental milestones, e.g. age-appropriate height expectations (adolescents only)
  • Flat affect
  • Anemia
  • Electrolyte disturbances
  • Suppression of immune system
  • Low hormone levels
  • Dehydration
  • Dry skin
  • Thinning hair / hair loss
  • Brittle nails
  • Decrease in bone density / broken bones
  • Low blood pressure
  • Slowed heart rate / irregular heart beat
  • Delayed onset of menstrual cycle or a total absence of menstrual cycle in females
  • Presence of fine hair on arms and legs
  • Abdominal pain
  • Excessive energy or excessive lethargy
  • Constipation
  • Intolerance to cold / hypothermia
  • Hypotension
  • Swelling of tissues
  • Broken blood vessels
  • Yellowing of the skin
  • Swollen glands
  • Erosion of enamel on teeth due to purging

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Obsessions / compulsions / preoccupations with food, weight, or body shape
  • Desire to control situations and environment
  • Poor impulse control

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Low self-worth
  • Feelings of ineffectiveness
  • Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming overweight
  • Low range of emotions
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Depressed mood
  • Drastic shifts in mood
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Effects of Anorexia Nervosa

Without treatment for anorexia nervosa, there are a number of devastating effects that can occur if the behaviors associated with this illness persist. With the gravest consequence being death, the following are examples of what can happen when treatment for this detrimental disorder is not implemented:

  • Inability to attend school or work
  • Inability to adhere to responsibilities or roles
  • Social withdrawal or isolation
  • Infertility
  • Loss of muscle mass / weakened muscles
  • Osteoporosis
  • Kidney failure
  • Digestive system damage
  • Damage to vital organs
  • Heart attack / failure
  • Substance use, abuse, or addiction
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Self-harm
  • Suicide attempts

Co-Occurring Disorders

There are a number of other mental health conditions that can occur alongside anorexia nervosa. Sometimes occurring prior to the onset of anorexia symptoms, the following mental disorders can be diagnosed in conjunction with anorexia nervosa:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Other anxiety disorders
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Substance use disorders
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