Anorexia Nervosa

About 0.5% to 1.0% of young women develop anorexia nervosa, and it can affect women of any age. Approximately 5% of people with anorexia are male. Significant weight loss due to self-starvation characterises anorexia, often with serious medical complications. About 10% of people with anorexia may die in the long term. Underlying causes of anorexia will differ between individuals, and will be related to a combination of factors. Many of the symptoms are caused by the “Starvation Syndrome”. These symptoms will affect anyone who diets for long enough, but some people, at a vulnerable time of life or who have a biological predisposition, will experience greater physical and mental changes.

These may include chemical imbalances and reduced circulation in the brain which may contribute to body image distortions, rigid and obsessive thinking, and mood disturbance. However, reversing starvation alone does not ‘cure’ anorexia nervosa. The emotional relationship and psychological factors that contributed to the condition need to be addressed. Recovery from the effects of starvation can take a long time, even after weight is stabilised.

Physical Characteristics

• Marked weight loss
• Pallor, unhealthy look
• Skin nail and hair problems
• Sensitivity to cold
• Loss of periods in females, in pre-pubescent girls periods may never start
• Growth of fine body hair (lanugo)
• Constipation or bloating
• Insomnia

Behavioural Characteristics

• Unusually low intake of food
• Odd eating habits / unusual food rituals
• Excessive exercise or activity
• Frequent measuring of body weight
• Obsessive reading of nutritional information on food containers
• Increasing withdrawal from social activities
• Vomiting or using laxatives
• Dressing in layers to hide body shape
• Odd eating habits and strange food combinations
• Avoiding places or occasions where food might be present

Psychological Characteristics

• Insecurity about abilities, regardless of actual performance
• Depression, possible suicidal ideation
• Perfectionism and obsessiveness
• Intense fear of becoming fat even though very thin
• Difficulty concentrating
• Mood swings, irritability
• Mood and sense of self-worth affected by what is or is not eaten

Danger Signs

If someone displays any of the following symptoms, they must be medically assessed as soon as possible:

• rapid weight loss (e.g. 7 kg in 4 weeks)
• recent loss of greater than 10% of healthy weight
• increase in frequency of vomiting
• overexercising while very underweight
• dizziness, fainting or disorientation
• slow heart rate or chest pain
• rapidly increasing weakness
• severe muscle spasms