What is anorexia?

Anorexia is an eating disorder which is characterised by a deliberate and significant weight loss which is maintained by the patient deliberately. The medical term for the disease is anorexia nervosa. Often, anorexia patients have a distorted body perception, and think that they look overweight, have a fear of becoming overweight if they consume food even if they are underweight. Malnutrition can vary in severity and can lead to complications in the form of endocrine (hormonal) and metabolic changes. The condition is typically manifested in young women between the ages of 14 and 18, but may also occur sooner or later in life. More than 90% of patients with anorexia are women. In more rare cases, the disease develops after 25 years of age.


What are the symptoms of anorexia?

Anorexia patients will often involve one or more of the following factors to achieve very low weight:

  • A limited food intake; the portions of food are often small and the diet is extremely healthy
  • Excessive physical activity
  • Self-induced vomiting
  • Ingestion of laxatives or diuretics

These behaviors will result in excessive hunger sensation, which however typically disappears over time, as well as an increased focus on food. Because of the disease, the patient can experience a state of internal turmoil, which they typically handle with physical activity that may result in excessive exercise. The result will be a substantial weight loss, reduced performance physically and mentally, as well as fatigue. Malnutrition can cause constipation and a sense of bloating, why some anorexia patients choose to take laxatives or diuretic drugs to alleviate this discomfort. In severe case, these factors can lead to life-threatening low weight, where the body cannot maintain vital functions.

Furthermore, patients with anorexia will often have a distorted self-image, where the patient sees itself as overweight, even though the patient’s family, friends and BMI tell the patient that they are underweight. Often, anorexia is associated with the feeling of inferiority, inadequacy, as well as anxiety, obsessive thoughts and mood swings.


What are the causes of anorexia?

Anorexia is a disease caused by a combination of several factors. Some factors seem disposable, other triggering, and other factors help maintain the condition. The factors can be divided into biological, psychological and social factors. Among other things, heritage plays a part, as research has shown that many genes act as disposable for the development of anorexia.

The condition often makes its first appearance in teenagers, as they undergo many physical changes in the body and can experience mental and social challenges. The patient often has problems with close relations or is feeling an increased performance pressure at school or at leisure, and therefor instead develops a need for control over diet, weight and exercise. In addition, society's increased focus on the perfect body, extreme body ideals and health plays an important role.

Longer malnutrition and hunger will cause hormone disturbances and altered metabolism, resulting in maintenance of the disease. The thought pattern becomes slower and obsessive, and thereby the susceptibility to getting help and the ability to change the bad habits is reduced.

More than 50% of girls in young girls in the UK think they are overweight, but only 10% are actually overweight. Anorexia is often developed if the person has been dieting at a young age. In addition, factors in the home are important; for example, if the family experiences alcoholism, communication problems, weight problems and physical or mental illness.


What are the treatment options for anorexia?

When attempting to treat anorexia, the focus will be on stabilising the weight and food intake. This can be done by slowly increasing the number of calories during weekly weight control. At the same time, the patient must try to reduce physical activity. The treatment often involves psychoeducation and psychotherapy, in which the patient tries to enhance the sense of self-esteem, and reduce the need for control. In severe cases, hospitalisation may be necessary. If support, help and advice is needed, several helplines can be contacted by family, friends or the anorexia patient itself:

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