How To Understand Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is an illness that predominantly afflicts female teenagers.  Anorexia nervosa differs from bulimia in that bulimics eat excess amounts of food but prevent themselves from gaining weight by vomiting and/or using laxatives and diuretics, while anorexia nervosa sufferers abstain from food as much as humanly possible.  People who suffer from anorexia nervosa exhibit some combination of the following symptoms:

  1. They starve themselves.
  2. They refuse to eat high-calorie foods.
  3. They exercise obsessively. 

A characteristic that many sufferers of anorexia nervosa exhibit is a tendency to perfection. Their standards for themselves are inordinately high.  They expect perfect grades, perfect looks, perfect social standing and the perfect body.  Some theories about the origins of anorexia nervosa suggest that the illness is an extreme manifestation of this effort to perfect.  What begins as a perfecting of the physical body becomes an obsession with control over that body so that any "giving in" to the body's natural desire to eat is seen as a weakness and loss of control by the teenager with anorexia nervosa.  Some researchers believe that while the symptoms of anorexia nervosa are behavioral, the illness has a biological core.

As anorexia nervosa progresses, the girl will suffer from some combination of the following symptoms:

  • Preoccupation with food and/or weight
  • Dry skin
  • Thinning hair
  • Frequent illness due to a suppressed immune system
  • An inability to remain warm (caused by low body temperature)
  • Growth of fine hair all over her body known as lanugo
  • An odor to the breath caused by ketosis
  • Mood swings and/or depression
  • Fainting and dizziness
  • Dental decay

As anorexia nervosa worsens, its sufferers will experience some combination of the following symptoms:

  • Cessation of the menstrual period
  • Endocrine and electrolyte imbalances
  • Edema (water retention)
  • Internal bleeding, ulcers and other gastrointestinal disorders
  • Anemia
  • Pancreatitis
  • Kidney damage, usually caused by dehydration
  • Heart damage

In its most severe stages, anorexia nervosa can cause death. 

Though the answer to anorexia nervosa may seem straightforward, it is not.  Because of the disease's psychological underpinnings, the cure is not as simple as getting a girl to eat again.  Her underlying self-esteem issues must be addressed as well as her desire for control.  While the consequences of anorexia nervosa seem so obviously detrimental as to be self-evident, for the sufferer of this disease, anorexia nervosa frequently offers her an element of control over a life that can seem unpredictable and unruly.  The fact that the onset of anorexia nervosa tends to be in adolescence has been attributed to the fact that the transformation from girl to woman can present significant challenges to any girl, much less one lacking in self-esteem. 

The ability to control one's body to such an extreme degree can offer the anorexia nervosa sufferer an element of power that may be lacking in other areas of her life.  Friends and parents must have sympathy for the deep-seated unhappiness and insecurity that lie beneath this disease.  Fortunately, understanding of anorexia nervosa's psychological underpinnings has greatly improved in recent years so that girls have a much better chance of receiving the much-needed support they will require to recover from this devastating disease.


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