Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that makes people lose more weight than is considered healthy for their age and height.
Persons with this disorder may have an intense fear of weight gain, even when they are underweight. They may diet or exercise too much or use other ways to lose weight.
Eating disorder - anorexia
The exact causes of anorexia nervosa are not known. Many factors may be involved. Genes and hormones may play a role. Social attitudes that promote very thin body types may also be involved.
Risk factors for anorexia include:
- Being more worried about, or paying more attention to, weight and shape
- Having an anxiety disorder as a child
- Having a negative self-image
- Having eating problems during infancy or early childhood
- Having certain social or cultural ideas about health and beauty
- Trying to be perfect or overly focused on rules
Anorexia often begins during the pre-teen or teen years or young adulthood. It is more common in females, but may also be seen in males. The disorder is seen mainly in white women who are high achievers in school and who have a goal-oriented family or personality.
A person with anorexia usually:
- Has an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even when underweight
- Refuses to keep weight at what is considered normal for her age and height (15% or more below the normal weight)
- Have a body image that is very distorted, be very focused on body weight or shape, and refuse to admit the danger of weight loss
People with anorexia may severely limit the amount of food they eat. Or they eat and then make themselves throw up. Other behaviors include:
- Cutting food into small pieces or moving them around the plate instead of eating
- Exercising all the time, even when the weather is bad, they are hurt, or their schedule is busy
- Going to the bathroom right after meals
- Refusing to eat around other people
- Using pills to make themselves urinate (water pills or diuretics), have a bowel movement (enemas and laxatives), or decrease their appetite (diet pills)
Other symptoms of anorexia may include:
- Blotchy or yellow skin that is dry and covered with fine hair
- Confused or slow thinking, along with poor memory or judgment
- Dry mouth
- Extreme sensitivity to cold (wearing several layers of clothing to stay warm)
- Loss of bone strength
- Wasting away of muscle and loss of body fat
Exams and Tests
Tests should be done to help find the cause of weight loss, or see what damage the weight loss has caused. Many of these tests will be repeated over time to monitor the person.
These tests may include:
- Bone density test to check for thin bones (osteoporosis)
- Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)
- Kidney function tests
- Liver function tests
- Total protein
- Thyroid function tests
The biggest challenge in treating anorexia nervosa is helping the person recognize that he or she has an illness. Most people with anorexia deny that they have an eating disorder. People often enter treatment only when their condition is serious.
Goals of treatment are to restore normal body weight and eating habits. A weight gain of 1 to 3 pounds per week is considered a safe goal.
Different programs have been designed to treat anorexia. Sometimes the person can gain weight by:
- Increasing social activity
- Reducing the amount of physical activity
- Using schedules for eating
Many patients start with a short hospital stay and follow-up with a day treatment program.
A longer hospital stay may be needed if:
- The person has lost a lot of weight (being below 70% of their ideal body weight for their age and height). For severe and life-threatening malnutrition, the person may need to be fed through a vein or stomach tube.
- Weight loss continues, even with treatment
- Medical complications, such as heart problems, confusion, or low potassium levels develop
- The person has severe depression or thinks about committing suicide
Care providers who are usually involved in these programs include:
- Nurse practitioners
- Physician assistants
- Mental health care providers
Treatment is often very difficult. Patients and their families must work hard. Many therapies may be tried until the patient overcomes this disorder.
Patients may drop out of programs if they have unrealistic hopes of being "cured" with therapy alone.
Different kinds of talk therapy are used to treat people with anorexia:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (a type of talk therapy), group therapy, and family therapy have all been successful.
- Goal of therapy is to change patients' thoughts or behavior to encourage them to eat in a healthier way. This kind of therapy is more useful for treating younger patients who have not had anorexia for a long time.
- If the patient is young, therapy may involve the whole family. The family is seen as a part of the solution, instead of the cause of the eating disorder.
- Support groups may also be a part of treatment. In support groups, patients and families meet and share what they have been through.
Medicines such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers may help some anorexic patients when given as part of a complete treatment program. These medicines can help treat depression or anxiety. Although medicines may help, none has been proven to decrease the desire to lose weight.
The stress of illness can be eased by joining a support group. Sharing with others who have common experiences and problems can help you not feel alone.
Anorexia nervosa is a serious condition that can be life-threatening. Treatment programs can help people with the condition return to a normal weight. But it is common for the disease to return.
Women who develop this eating disorder at an early age have a better chance of recovering completely. Most people with anorexia will continue to prefer a lower body weight and be very focused on food and calories.
Weight management may be hard. Long-term treatment may be needed to stay at a healthy weight.
Complications may include:
- Bone weakening
- Decrease in white blood cells, which leads to increased risk of infection
- Low potassium levels in the blood, which may cause dangerous heart rhythms
- Severe lack of water and fluids in the body (dehydration)
- Lack of protein, vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients in the body (malnutrition)
- Seizures due to fluid or sodium loss from repeated diarrhea or vomiting
- Thyroid gland problems
- Tooth decay
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Talk to your health care provider if someone you care about is:
- Too focused on weight
- Limiting the food he or she eats
- Very underweight
Getting medical help right away can make an eating disorder less severe.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, Va: American Psychiatric Publishing. 2013.
Becker AE, Mickley DW, Derenne JL, Kibanski A. Eating disorders: evaluation and management. In: Stern TA, Rosenbaum JF, Fava M, et al., eds. Massachusetts General Hospital Comprehensive Clinical Psychiatry. 1st ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Mosby; 2008:chap 37.
Fisher Ca, Hetrick SE, Rushford N. Family therapy for anorexia nervosa. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010 Apr 14; (4):CD004780.
Rosen DS, American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Adolescence. Clinical report: identification and management of eating disorders in children and adolescents. Pediatrics. 2010;126:1240-1253.
Treasure J, Claudino AM, Zucker N. Eating disorders. Lancet. 2010; 375(7914):583-593.
Last reviewed 3/10/2014 by Timothy Rogge, MD, Medical Director, Family Medical Psychiatry Center, Kirkland, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
- The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition.
- A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions.
- Call 911 for all medical emergencies.
- Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites.