Anorexia Nervosa, or simply anorexia, is a mental illness and an eating disorder that has a damaging effect on the body. This illness affects how people view themselves and leads to issues with food intake and weight. People who suffer from anorexia lose an unhealthy amount of weight which affects their daily life, training, and social relationships.
An eating disorder is a psychiatric condition that is defined by not consuming adequate energy. This can be linked to the amount of food consumed, the frequency and the quality of meals.
People may come to suffer from anorexia if they are under a lot of pressure and feel stressed; or if they feel particular pressure to lose weight. Images of celebrities in the media and social media platforms often show a particular body image, which can have a harmful influence on individuals. With images showing 'perfect bodies' everywhere, individuals can feel under lots of pressure to look the same way, which may involve losing weight. This can particularly affect those who have low self-esteem or have obsessive-compulsive traits.
Even an off-hand comment about someone's weight can trigger an athlete to feel like they need to lose weight.
Particularly for those who do sports, there can be a pressure to look a certain way. When people are among athletes, individuals may believe that others look more toned or thinner than themselves. This apparent pressure to achieve the ideal body shape can make some people want to lose weight. Athletes may also try to lose weight as they think it will improve their performance. This unhealthy focus on food and weight is often combined with doing too much exercise, again to become thinner. The emphasis on being thin can be especially prominent in sports like gymnastics, dancing, and endurance running where low body fat is seen to be good.
Individuals may also become anorexic to take control of something in their life. If they are coping with stresses and pressures from school, work, training, family and others, their mental health may start to suffer. Anorexia may be a result of this, as controlling their weight is something they feel they can do.
Physical symptoms of anorexia
- Weight loss
- Irregular periods
- Stomach pains
- Low body temperature
- Feeling physically weak and loss of muscle strength
Psychological symptoms of anorexia
- Excessive focus on body weight
- Wanting to be thinner and fear of putting on weight
- Feelings of guilt over not doing exercise and/or eating food
- Distorted view of body shape and how they look- believing themselves to be larger than they are
- Low confidence and self-esteem
- Lack of concentration and focus e.g. at school, in work, at training
- Other mental health disorders may be present, such as depression and anxiety
- Missing meals
- Eating small amounts of food
- Avoiding eating with people, which may involve saying they ate earlier even if they didn't
- An unhealthy focus on calories in food and restricting their diet
- Eating slowly, to try to disguise the amount they are eating
- Cutting food into small pieces to make it easier to eat and/or to hide how much they have eaten
- Excessive exercising
- Obsessive behaviour, wanting things a certain way and/or in a routine, particularly concerning food
- Mood changes and irritability
- Social withdrawal
People who suffer from anorexia may not display all these symptoms, but even having some of them can indicate this illness. Coaches, family, and friends of athletes should be aware of these warning signs and should try and identify the illness before it gets too severe. It can be difficult to support the person suffering from anorexia as they may deny they have a problem, but it is important to be supportive and try to encourage them to seek help.
The effect of anorexia on the body can increase the risk of other injuries such as stress fractures. This is because the individual is not getting the nutrients required for the body to function effectively, particularly if they are training hard.
Anorexia can have long-term effects on the body and can cause real harm and damage. Bone density can decrease, leading to osteoporosis, and for women, it may lead to difficulties when trying to conceive. Anorexia can affect major organs and even the heart, which may continue even when the person is no longer anorexic. When young people have anorexia, it can affect their development by delaying the onset of puberty and stunting growth.
As anorexia is a mental health disorder, the treatment needs to tackle the underlying mental issue. Counselling and therapy are two options. Talking about how they are feeling can help those suffering from anorexia as vocalising their fears and reasons for not eating can help them come to terms with their illness. Talking to a therapist can help individuals find ways to cope with their thoughts and develop a healthy eating habit.
Going to self-help and support groups are another option that can help people suffering from eating disorders. Being able to talk to people who have gone through similar experiences can help sufferers in their recovery.
For those who suffer from severe anorexia, receiving treatment in inpatient units is sometimes necessary. This decision will often be made by the patient alongside their therapist and GP, and the units will give more controlled care to suit the individual's needs.