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Eating Disorders

Anorexia Nervosa

First coined in 1873 by a doctor to Queen Victoria, Sir William Gull, anorexia nervosa is a psychological disorder highlighted by an addiction to fasting, restricting food intake, caused by a fear of putting on additional body weight. The disorder is also characterized by a poor body self-image. The disorder affects females more so than males, and often presents itself during the teenage years. Those afflicted with the disorder will think of themselves as being too fat, even if they are very underweight, and often will weigh themselves constantly, and study their body image in the mirror. They will be quite hungry however, they will force themselves not to eat (or else eat very small portions) with the average amount of calories consumed per day being around six hundred to eight hundred.


There exist many signs and symptoms that a person suffering from anorexia nervosa may exhibit, with the severity and form varying from person to person. For instance, many people suffering from anorexia will have a below normal Body Mass Index (BMI) for their particular age. Also, in females, non-existent menstrual cycles will often occur, and when the absence last at least 3 months in a row, this is called amenorrhea. Of course, anorexics will show a fear of gaining weight, which can lead to ritualistic eating habits (e.g. hiding food, throwing away food, etc.) as well as practices in purging via the use of laxatives, vomiting, water pills. Anorexics have also been known to exhibit further psychological issues such as depression, OCD, mood swings, alcoholism, drug addiction, etc. (concomitant disorders), along with physical symptoms like bad breath, distended stomach, loss or thinning of hair, and lethargy.


The possible causes of anorexia nervosa can be categorized into 3 main areas: biological, environmental, and effects of the media.

Regarding biology, some of the proposed causes are, for instance, genes. It is widely believed that anorexia is very heritable, with genetic rates being between fifty-six and eighty-four percent. Serotonin has also been linked specifically to the failure to regulate serotonin in the brain has been linked to anorexia, with high amounts shown in areas that are involved in mood, impulse, and anxiety. The immune system is shown to be a cause as well, with certain antibodies that fight against neuropeptides being linked to parts of ones personality that are then linked to anorexia, (e.g. responses to stress and appetite control). Also, many believe that infections may play a role in anorexia, such as the streptococcus infection. Finally, nutrition plays a role, with poor levels of zinc being linked to the disorder indirectly via its role in exaggerating the disorder.

Regarding the environment (culture), it is believed that one’s culture can play the role of a trigger or pathway for anorexia to develop. For example, in cultures where obesity is rampant, a higher level of anorexia exits, stemming from the culture’s emphasis of looking young, signaling that age equals fat. Also, it’s been shown that those who have anorexia experienced childhood sexual abuse.

Regarding the media, TV, internet, movies etc. often present a unrealistic view of body image, and thus many youth will not be able to tease out if such imagery is real or fake, and so will become vulnerable to certain beliefs (i.e. thin is in).


There are a number of ways to help lessen the effects anorexia may have on an individual. Four main areas of treatment are diet, drugs, therapy, and alternative medicine.

Regarding diet, diet plans are used extensively in treating anorexia. For instance, zinc supplements are widely used to help the patient gain weight, even if they’re not originally deficient in zinc. A slow increase in caloric intake is another diet method, beginning at 1300 calories with slow increments of 500 until ideal calorie level is reached. Nutritional counseling is one more method, along with what is named Medical Nutrition Therapy, which is a nutritional plan tailored to the person’s specific physical, medical, psychological, and diet history. In terms of drugs, Olanzapine is often used in treatment, showing an effect of increasing one’s BMI and decreasing food obsessions. Psychotherapy, mainly Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Family Therapy are also used in treating anorexia. CBT works by rebuilding one’s beliefs, thoughts, attitudes about body image. Family Therapy works by having the parents and patient attend therapy together to build stronger family bonds to help support the patient through their illness. Finally, alternative medicine, such as yoga, have been widely regarded as beneficial treatments for anorexia, alongside traditional methods, especially in the reduction of obsessive thoughts about food intake.


The prognosis of anorexia is actually quite good, with the disorder lasting on average only about two years. Also, when using the family-based therapy, seventy-five percent of teenagers in such treatment for anorexia have a positive outcome. However, there still exists a five to twenty percent of the anorexia population who will die from the disorder, usually caused by the side-effects such as heart disease, organ failure, and suicide, giving this particular clinical disorder one of the greatest death rates of all psychiatric disorders. Furthermore, relapse is possible, usually after the initial year after the patient has reached the normal BMI.

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