Anorexia Nervosa (AN) is an eating disorder that typically occurs in young women but can affect any individual. It is characterized by an intense fear of weight gain, a distorted body image and the inability to maintain a minimally normal body weight. It is a serious, life-threatening illness that causes severe malnutrition and has the highest mortality rate of any mental health condition. The main symptoms are extreme food restriction and a variety of compulsive behaviors to prevent weight gain including excessive exercise, purging through vomiting or laxative abuse and binge eating.
In the most common subtype of anorexia nervosa called restricting anorexia, people maintain low body weight by severely limiting the amount and types of foods they eat. This can lead to a lack of essential nutrients and may also be accompanied by compulsive exercises or self-induced purging behaviors such as vomiting, diuretic or laxative abuse, or excessive use of enemas.
The second type of anorexia nervosa is known as binge-eating/purging anorexia and is characterized by periods of binge eating followed by the use of purging behaviors to control weight gain. Binge-eating/purging anorexia may be accompanied by compulsive exercising or self-induced purging through vomiting, diuretics or laxative abuse or a combination of both. People in this subtype are often secretive about their binge eating, leaving evidence behind such as empty wrappers or containers.
Both of these anorexia subtypes are very dangerous, and people with either are at high risk of medical complications and death, even when they appear to be of a healthy weight. It is important to remember that any eating concerns should be taken seriously and discussed with a GP.
Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder, and there are several risk factors associated with this disease including:
A distorted view of body weight and shape. Relentless dietary habits to prevent weight gain. Extreme weight loss (or failure to achieve expected weight gain in growing children). Feelings of depressed mood or anxiety. Inability to eat in company.
People who have anorexia nervosa are at increased risk of suicide. They are more likely to drop out of treatment early and have poorer remission rates than individuals with other eating disorders. The longer they have been ill, the more likely they are to experience medical complications such as heart problems and osteoporosis.
Another risk factor for anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders is family history of mental illness, particularly depression and bipolar disorder. Family members of people with these disorders are more likely to develop an eating disorder themselves.
Some people with anorexia nervosa or other eating disorders have a normal weight or are just overweight, but their eating behavior and preoccupation with food, weight or shape concern is a significant source of distress and interferes with work, school, social and family functioning. These individuals may benefit from the help of a therapist and may choose to attend an inpatient or residential behavioral specialty eating disorder program. Many of these programs are highly effective in restoring weight and helping the person to overcome a destructive eating pattern.