Mental Health

What Is Anorexia Nervosa?

I first learnt about anorexia when I was a teenager many decades ago. My school was progressive we learnt about anorexia and HIV/AIDS when they were only first being discovered and talked about in the media. I remember all the hype back then in the media and TV on how to help yourself and your children in order to prevent anorexia. To me there doesn’t seem to be as much talk about anorexia as there was back then but parents and teens still very much need to be aware of eating disorders. They face an ever increasing social pressure from a larger audience of social media than I ever did as a teenager. But what is anorexia nervosa?

It is characterised as an eating disorder in which the person refused to eat enough to maintain a normal body weight. The individual will as a result have a mind and body that is starved of the nutrients needed for healthy, balanced functioning. The illness can be fatal but is also one in which the person can full recovery with appropriate support and treatment.What Is Anorexia Nervosa

Many factors come into play with anorexia not just eating restrictions but also psychological issues and emotional distress;  men and women can both suffer from it with approximately 10% of men having anorexia. Usually anorexia starts off by appearing to be part of a healthier lifestyle choice, may be with a sudden restriction of certain high calorie food groups or a change to a vegetarian lifestyle. Food restrictions become increased over time and the relentless drive behind the individual’s behaviour becomes more and more obvious. They can also use other means of maintaining low body weight  including fasting, excessive exercise, self-induced vomiting, the use of laxatives, diuretics or appetite suppressants. The person who is using self-starvation and weight loss/control is doing so as a means to attempt to feel more in control of their life.

Main Features Of Anorexia Nervosa

Please note that most symptoms will reverse with weight gain and normalisation of diet and eating habits with the correct treatment. So to sum up the main features of Anorexia Nervosa are:

Physical signs and symptoms:

  • Restriction of food intake. Over-activity and excessive exercising. Lying about food intake, claiming to have already eaten or to have plans to eat elsewhere.
  • Preoccupation with body weight, size and shape. Frequenting weighing themselves.
  • A fear of putting on weight with a body image distortion -perception of body shape and size are disturbed.
  • Disruption of hormonal balance -periods become irregular and eventually cease (amenorrhoea). In men there can be a loss of libido.
  • Cooking for others. Reading and collecting recipes.
  • Rituals around food and eating.
  • Increased use of spices, condiments, chewing gum.
  • Increased consumption of fluids.
  • Increased sensitivity to cold. Poor circulation.
  • Constipation and abdominal pain.
  • Restlessness.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • Dry, thinning hair.
  • Dry, discoloured skin.
  • Growth of fine, downy hair (lanugo) on the face and body.

Psychological and social signs and symptoms:

  • Low self-esteem.
  • Irritability and mood swings.
  • Difficulty resolving conflict.
  • Social isolation.
  • Difficulty coping with change and frustration.
  • Inflexible ‘black or white’/ ‘right or wrong’ thinking.
  • Depression.
  • Obsessive and/or compulsive behaviour.


Health Consequences Of Anorexia Nervosa

  • Dehydration – risk of kidney failure.
  • Muscle weakness – risk of muscle loss.
  • Tiredness and overall weakness -risk of fainting.
  • Abnormally slow heart rate and low blood pressure produces changes in the heart muscle – risk of heart failure.
  • Loss of bone density resulting in dry, brittle bones (osteoporosis) – risk of postural problems and risk of fracture.
  • Starvation also affects a person’s thinking and behaviour, producing changes in brain chemistry- contributing to sustained distorted thinking and disturbed perception and obsession with food.
  • Intellectual ability can also be affected – reduced concentration, poor memory, difficulties with abstract thinking, problem solving, decision making and planning.
  • Increase vulnerability to depression, anxiety and other psychiatric disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  • If the depression is severe there is a risk of suicide.

Getting Help

  • Anorexia is a serious disorder and should not be left untreated.
  • Both the physical and the psychological aspects of the disorder should be assessed and monitored by either your GP or in more severe cases under psychiatric care. Your GP will refer you.
  • Treatment will vary according to the individual and the time needed for recovery will also vary according to each individual.
  • Counselling: Individuals need psychotherapy to address the psychological problems relating to personal effectiveness and interpersonal problems that may be underlying the disorder.
  • Family therapy is also important for the same reasons. Any illness or disability affects entire families. Those left to act as carer need support also.
  • Nutritional counselling is also important to increase a person’s understanding of how their diet and eating patterns are affecting them physically, mentally and socially.
  • Some people may require hospitalisation. It can be difficult for an individual to admit how bad their eating disorder has become and the seriousness of their illness.
  • Recovery can be very frightening and resistance to treatment is normal so this may have  an effect of delaying  treatment. This can in turn lead to increased distress for careers, parents and family members.
  • Carers, parents and family members should seek information and support for themselves to increase their understanding of the disorder and their ability to help.

Did you know we offer counselling for parents and carers of children suffering with eating disorders. If you would like to call for an appointment please phone 089 4373641.

Other support  Helpline: locall 1890 200 444

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