Anorexia Nervosa

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What Is Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is one of the common and well-known eating disorders. Despite the stereotype of anorexia nervosa being a young person’s disorder, it can affect people at any age, from adolescents to senior citizens. Untreated, an anorexia nervosa diagnosis can also lead to serious complications. Affecting millions of Americans of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds, anorexia nervosa ranks as one of the most serious psychiatric conditions. Below is some basic information about the condition, its implications, and possible anorexia nervosa treatment recommendations.



 Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that is defined by food restriction and/or pronounced weight loss. This is usually accompanied by body image distortions, also known as body dysmorphic disorder. Anorexia nervosa symptoms usually begin in adolescence, but they can develop earlier or later in life as well. A person can be suffering from anorexia nervosa without outwardly appearing underweight. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, an anorexia nervosa diagnosis requires an individual to meet the following criteria:

     1. Unreasonable influence of an individual’s weight or shape on self-evaluation, denial of             the seriousness of low body weight or disturbance in the way an individual’s shape or              weight is experienced.

     2. Intense fear of becoming overweight or gaining weight even while being underweight.

     3. Restriction of energy intake relative to the body’s requirements, which leads to a low               body weight.

In some cases, an individual may have an eating disorder even if they do not meet the weight loss requirements for an anorexia nervosa diagnosis. In such cases, the individual may receive a diagnosis of atypical anorexia nervosa. Atypical anorexia nervosa can be just as medically dangerous as anorexia nervosa.

Eating Disorder Treatment

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Pathophysiology of Anorexia Nervosa

In 2018 Oliver-Pyatt Centers (OPC) began a comprehensive research study, approved by an Institutional Review Board, in order to assess treatment outcomes in our Residential, PHP and IOP levels of care. Specifically, clients who consent to participate in our research study complete a series of questionnaires upon admission, transfer to a new level of care (stepping up or down), as well as upon discharge from our eating disorder treatment programs. Additionally, we obtain follow-up data for clients who consent at specified time-points after their discharge.

The purpose of these questionnaires is multifaceted. Primarily, it represents our commitment to personalized treatment planning. This data provides a snapshot of each individual’s distinctive symptom presentation on measures of eating disorder symptoms, depression, anxiety, functional impairment, and trauma reactivity. This information deepens our understanding of the clinical challenges specific to each client and as a roadmap for exploration of the factors that may be maintaining the eating disorder.

What CAUSES Anorexia Nervosa?

The exact causes of anorexia nervosa disorder differ from person to person. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, researchers have identified several different factors that may lead to the development of anorexia nervosa symptoms, including environmental factors, psychological factors, and biological factors.

Environmental factors contributing to the development of anorexia nervosa include unrealistic presentations of the ideal body in media and culture, as well as pressure from family and peers to lose weight. In many cultures, there is an emphasis on losing weight, leading individuals to develop unrealistic perceptions of the ideal weight and body shape. These ideals also lead to peer pressure, inducing both men and women to employ disordered eating behaviors like food restriction.

Psychological factors contributing to the development of anorexia nervosa symptoms include anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. People with anorexia nervosa also tend to display perfectionist tendencies. All of these traits can increase the likelihood of an individual to develop an obsession with losing weight, despite negative physical, psychological and social consequences.

Finally, some researchers believe that biological factors may also contribute to the development of anorexia nervosa. Certain individuals may have genes that are more prone to developing disordered eating behaviors. As with other mental health disorders, an individual’s family background also contributes to the risk for anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders. People whose parents suffered from anorexia nervosa are much more likely to develop the disorder themselves, indicating that there is a genetic as well as learned aspect to its development.

Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa

Beyond the main symptoms of body image distortion, food restriction, and weight loss, the symptoms of anorexia nervosa can vary from one individual to the next. Some of these symptoms include:

  • Exercising excessively
  • Restricting food intake severely.
  • Extreme weight loss
  • Dehydration
  • Swelling of legs and arms
  • Low blood pressure
  • Abnormal blood counts and/or anemia
  • Abnormal heart rhythms
  • Dry or yellow skin
  • Intolerance of cold
  • Fainting
  • Thinning hair or hair loss
  • Fatigue

People who have anorexia nervosa may also exhibit psychological or behavioral changes, such as social withdrawal, irritability, feeling distressed during mealtimes, covering up in layers of clothing, preoccupation with food and preoccupation with weight or other perceived flaws. You can see more about anorexia nervosa diagnosis and anorexia nervosa treatment here and here.

Anorexia Nervosa Treatment

The implications of untreated anorexia nervosa may be severe. Without psychiatric and medical intervention, they can lead to medical complications and even death. A multifaceted approach to anorexia nervosa treatment is necessary in order to prevent the development of serious complications. Because of the uncertainty about what causes anorexia nervosa, the treatment plan should be customized to meet the needs of each individual.

The most effective anorexia nervosa recovery programs begin by identifying the unique factors that led to the development of the disorder. These programs then focus on addressing each of these factors while simultaneously treating any physical symptoms or complications of the disorder that may have already developed. If you or a loved one is struggling with anorexia nervosa, please contact us today.