Anorexia Nervosa - dying to be thin

We've all seen images of emaciated Hollywood starlets on the covers of tabloids with skeletally thin arms and garish headlines screaming anorexia. We've heard stories of regular girls all across North America starving themselves in a never-ending quest to be skinny and we shake our heads at the ravages of eating disorders.

Today's article about anorexia nervosa marks the beginning of a series of columns in which I will discuss a few of the more common eating disorders.

Anorexia nervosa is a serious condition in which sufferers starve themselves and refuse to maintain normal body weight. It can result in a wide range of serious health problems and can ultimately cause death from starvation.

The term anorexia literally means loss of appetite, but people with this disorder do not actually lose their appetite for food, but rather ignore it in a quest for control over the desire to eat.

A person with anorexia is terrified of becoming overweight and has a distorted concept of her own body, not seeing herself as others do. As a result of this distorted body image, the anorexic individual eats very little and avoids high fat or high calorie foods and tends to exercise excessively to lose perceived fat.

Although anorexia can occur in boys, it is far more common in girls and usually starts in adolescence.

Focusing entirely on food and weight is one of the warning signs of the disorder, but anorexia is not really about food. In fact, those experiencing anorexia are often attempting to use their control of food and weight as a way to deal with emotional problems.

The exact cause of anorexia and other eating disorders is not fully understood, but as with most illnesses, likely involves a combination of genetic and environmental contributors. It is a disorder that tends to run in families, a girl has a 10 to 20 times higher risk of developing anorexia if she has a sibling or parent with the disease.

Typically, those who develop this eating disorder are perfectionists. They are often good students, excellent athletes and involved in many school and community activities. Other common characteristics among anorexics include low self esteem and social isolation after the disorder’s onset. Societal pressure to achieve a 'perfect' figure may act as a trigger and encourage obsessive attention to weight.

When emotional problems seem impossible to solve and life is chaotic, control over food and weight becomes very important to an anorexic individual. Anorexia is not simply a call for attention. People with this condition often don't realize the connection between their food obsession and emotional issues.

Aside from the physical sign of weight loss, anorexic women tend to stop having a menstrual period, have dry or discoloured skin, thinning hair on the head and growth of fine hair all over the body. Frequent illness, feeling cold all the time, frequent moodiness and difficulty concentrating can also occur as a result of anorexia.

Treating anorexia is very difficult as those with the condition generally don't believe anything is wrong and do not want to change their behaviour. In order for treatment to be successful, patients must want to change and should also have a good support network of friends and family in place.

Since death by starvation is a very real risk for those with anorexia, hospitalization is often necessary. Treatment then involves more than simply forced weight gain. Long term counseling to learn to deal with emotions and self esteem is important. Some anorexics are also helped by antidepressant medication.

Most importantly, if you think you or a loved one are experiencing anorexia, seek help. This serious illness requires the assistance of a professional who is experienced in dealing with this disorder.


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