A Brazil model Ana Carolina Reston, died at the age of 21 yrs because of infection complications due to a condition called anorexia- she starved herself to get the ‘ideal’ figure and body weight. She weighed just 88 POUNDS (39.9kgs)!

Many young people fall into the same category of being obsessed with their body weight. Despite them being thin, they do not seem to have a positive opinion about their body image. And in this pursuit to maintain weight, they adopt extreme eating habits. Anorexia nervosa is one such eating disorder.

Understanding anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is a mental disorder where a person, more often a woman, has an intense fear of gaining weight. These people are usually thin and fear food, but are yet not satisfied with the body image. The disorder is much beyond a food or eating problem. It is a means to ease some hidden tensions, anger, and anxiety. Anorexia nervosa is most commonly seen in adolescent girls and young women, though it can affect men and children. Such people weigh at least 15% less of the normal weight expected for their heights.

Why people can become anorexic is not exactly known. Many factors like social attitudes, genetics, hormones, obsession, over concerned parents, personality traits like being a perfectionist and an intense concern for weight and shape are believed to lead to this disorder. Many people may be facing a stressful event in life like a family conflict, loss of a loved one, change in job, rape or abuse. They have general negative attitude in life and a negative self-image.

Warning signs of anorexia

The signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa include:

  • Extreme loss of weight with less intake and compulsive exercise
  • Perception of being over-weight and in bad shape
  • Fear of gaining weight
  • Dry, pale and yellow skin with thin hair
  • Cold or swollen hands and feet, weak bones and fatigue
  • Low blood pressure and rhythm disturbances in the heart
  • Poor concentration and memory
  • Refusal to eat in public
  • Self-induced vomiting or purging
  • Use of diet pills or pills that increase urination
  • Secondary amenorrhea

Anorexia is a potential cause for many problems like growth arrest, excessive hair fall, and malnutrition. It may lead to weak and brittle bones and problems in heart, thyroid, and kidneys. Infertility is the most feared consequence. Repeated vomiting of the acidic content from stomach can cause tooth decay. Depression, mood swings, decreased mental abilities and suicidal thoughts are the dreaded psychological consequences. Anorexia nervosa is a serious disorder and can cause death in 10% cases.

Treating anorexia nervosa

Treatment of anorexia is challenging. The patient has to be made to realize that she or he is suffering from the disorder. Anorexia nervosa treatment begins with counseling and the first goal is to help the patient gain weight. The doctor may help the patient to follow a schedule for eating, decrease physical exercises and increase social activity. Rarely, a hospitalization may be required if there are medical complications. If the patient has severe mood problems, medicines like antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs and mood stabilizers may be needed.

Anorexia nervosa and bulimia

Both anorexia and bulimia are eating disorders. Both share similarities in that the patient fears weight gain and has a distorted perception of weight and shape. Unlike anorexia, bulimia is characterized by excessive eating. Such people adopt irrational methods after eating like using laxatives to purge or mechanically stimulate the throat to cause vomiting. Some may use enemas or pills to stimulate urination. They are involved in heavy exercising and avoid socializing to escape eating. People with bulimia may be either normal or more in weight as against the underweight people with anorexia. Binging and purging are regular features of bulimia and frequency of such practice may be at least twice a week and prevalent for at least three months.

Seek help

Family and friends should support the anorexic patient. A comfortable time and place should be chosen to talk to the patient. Conflicts should be avoided. No blame, shame, guilt or fear should be thrown on the affected person. Help the patient meet the stress in life. Offer moral support. Participate in healthy eating. Offer simple solutions to all situations and persuade them to consult a therapist for help. Offer patient hearing and supportive concern. Let them know you care.

Love yourself!

Anorexia nervosa is a dreadful disorder especially amongst the young women who are too inclined to keep themselves in the best shape. It is treatable but may return. Weight management is an elaborate and long affair. Patience, support, positive attitude and sensitivity can go a long way to fight this disorder. Help yourself and help others to eat healthy, and maintain a good body weight.