Anorexia nervosa is characterized by emaciation, a relentless pursuit of
thinness and unwillingness to maintain a normal or healthy weight, a
distortion of body image and intense fear of gaining weight, a lack of
menstruation among girls and women, and extremely disturbed eating
behavior. Some people with anorexia lose weight by dieting and
exercising excessively; others lose weight by self-induced vomiting, or
misusing laxatives, diuretics, or enemas.
Many people with anorexia see themselves as overweight, even when they are starved or are clearly malnourished. Eating, food and weight control become obsessions. A person with anorexia typically weighs herself or himself repeatedly, portions food carefully, and eats only very small quantities of only certain foods. Some who have anorexia recover with treatment after only one episode. Others get well but have relapses. Still others have a more chronic form of anorexia, in which their health deteriorates over many years as they battle the illness.
According to some studies, people with anorexia are up to ten times more likely to die as a result of their illness compared to those without the disorder. The most common complications that lead to death are cardiac arrest, and electrolyte and fluid imbalances. Suicide also can result.
Many people with anorexia also have coexisting psychiatric and physical illnesses, including depression, anxiety, obsessive behavior, substance abuse, cardiovascular and neurological complications, and impaired physical development.
Other symptoms may develop over time, including:
Treating anorexia involves three components:
Some research suggests that the use of medications, such as
antidepressants, antipsychotics, or mood stabilizers, may be modestly
effective in treating patients with anorexia by helping to resolve mood
and anxiety symptoms that often co-exist with anorexia. Recent studies,
however, have suggested that antidepressants may not be effective in
preventing some patients with anorexia from relapsing. In addition, no
medication has shown to be effective during the critical first phase of
restoring a patient to healthy weight. Overall, it is unclear if and how
medications can help patients conquer anorexia, but research is ongoing.
Different forms of psychotherapy, including individual, group and family-based, can help address the psychological reasons for the illness. Some studies suggest that family-based therapies in which parents assume responsibility for feeding their afflicted adolescent are the most effective in helping a person with anorexia gain weight and improve eating habits and moods.
Others have noted that a combined approach of medical attention and supportive psychotherapy designed specifically for anorexia patients is more effective than just psychotherapy. But the effectiveness of a treatment depends on the person involved and his or her situation. Unfortunately, no specific psychotherapy appears to be consistently effective for treating adults with anorexia. However, research into novel treatment and prevention approaches is showing some promise. One study suggests that an online intervention program may prevent some at-risk women from developing an eating disorder.
Source: National Institute of Mental Health