Anorexia nervosa (commonly referred to as anorexia) is a serious mental health condition that can drastically impair a person’s physical health. When a person severely restricts food intake and limits or eliminates vital nutrients, their body’s systems can begin to slow down, leading to several potential short- and long-term effects – many of which can be fatal.
Anorexia has one of the highest death rates of any mental illness, claiming the lives of between 5-20% of the people who suffer from it.1 Recognizing the signs and symptoms of anorexia can help a person get treatment early, which increases the chance of recovery.
This article answers the following frequently asked questions about anorexia:
- What is anorexia?
- What are anorexia signs and symptoms?
- What causes anorexia?
- What are the short-term and long-term anorexia effects?
- How are depression and anorexia related?
- What facts and statistics are available about anorexia?
- How can a person get help for anorexia?
What Is Anorexia?
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that causes people to lose an unhealthy amount of weight. It is characterized by a fear of gaining weight even in those who are already underweight or may be dieting and exercising to lose weight.
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Anorexia is far more common in females. But it can occur in males as well. It is a severe illness that can be life-threatening if not treated.1,2
Many celebrities have battled anorexia. Read about a few of them below.
Signs and Symptoms
A person must meet certain criteria to be officially diagnosed with anorexia. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Ed. (DSM-V) outlines the following 3 criteria:3
- Severe fear of becoming fat or gaining weight, even though the person is medically underweight based on body mass index (BMI).
- Distorted perception of one’s body weight and shape, denial of the seriousness of being underweight, or over-influence of body shape or weight on one’s evaluation of self.
- Restricting caloric intake, which leads to lower energy levels and significantly low body weight for one’s age, height, physical health, and development.
A person with anorexia usually displays several warning signs. These include the following anorexia symptoms:1,2,4, 6
- Significant weight loss that has no other explanation
- Exercising all the time even when it may be difficult to do so
- Refusing to eat around other people
- Irritable mood
- Isolating oneself from friends and withdrawing from activities
- Using diuretics, dieting pills, or laxatives
- Going to the bathroom right after meals
- Blotchy or yellow skin
- Extreme sensitivity to cold
- Decreased bone mineral density
- Thinning hair
- Wasting away of muscles or body fat
- Frequent comments about being fat
- Abnormal behaviors surrounding food
- Developing food rituals such as rearranging food on the plate or excessive chewing
- In women, missed period for 3 or more cycles
- Dry mouth
- Low blood pressure
- Slowed thinking
- Abnormal heart rhythm
- Wearing layers of clothing even during hot temperatures
- Frequently looking in the mirror
- Eating only a few “safe” foods
- Repeatedly weighing or measuring oneself
- Obsessively thinking one is fat even when underweight
- Self-esteem overly shaped by weight loss
If you have observed these symptoms in yourself or someone else, call our helpline at .
What Causes Anorexia?
The exact causes of anorexia aren’t fully understood. It is complex illness that may have many contributing factors.
- It can begin after a stressful life event, such as leaving home for college, moving to a new place, or breaking up with a significant other.
- It may also be caused by inherited biological and personality traits. For example, some people may have a genetic predisposition to traits such as perfectionism and sensitivity, which are both associated with anorexia.5,6
- People who are goal-oriented and high achievers are also more susceptible to the condition.2
Certain risk factors can predispose a person to developing anorexia. These include:1, 2, 5, 6, 7
- Genetics: Research studies on twins suggest that between 30-75% of cases of anorexia occur because of heritability.7
- Culture: Modern Western culture places a strong emphasis on being thin, especially for women. Many people equate their self-worth and feelings of success with their body weight and size, which can lead them to take drastic measures to achieve such ideals. 5,6
- Peer pressure: Those who feel a significant amount of peer pressure to stay thin may also be more likely to develop anorexia. Peer pressure is especially common in teenagers, who are heavily influenced by their peers’ opinions.5
- Age: People of all ages can develop anorexia. But it is most common in young people and rarely occurs in people over the age of 40. Teenagers are the most susceptible. According to research, 3 out of every 100 teens develops anorexia.6
- Gender: As many as 90-95% of people who suffer from anorexia are girls or women.1
- Family history of an eating disorder: Having a first-degree relative (parent, child, or sibling) who has had anorexia greatly increases a person’s risk. 5,6
- Certain occupations: Models, athletes, and performers (dancers, actors, etc.) are at a higher risk for developing anorexia because they often face significantly more pressure to look a certain way. 5,6
- Life transitions: Any major life transition such as changing schools or jobs, breaking up with a partner, losing a loved one, or moving to a new home can increase a person’s risk for anorexia and similar eating disorders. 5,6
- Psychological difficulties: Negative self-image, coping with painful or overwhelming emotions, or recovering from trauma can all increase a person’s susceptibility to anorexia. 2,6
Anorexia causes many physical complications and health problems. Many anorexia effects can be severe and even life-threatening.
Some of the short-term effects of anorexia include:1,4,5
- Weight loss.
- Dry skin and hair.
If you or someone you love is experiencing any of the above anorexia effects, seek help as soon as possible. According to experts, seeking treatment early on greatly increase a person’s chance of recovery and can significantly reduce the risk of more serious complications.1
If left untreated, a person with anorexia can suffer many long-term health effects, such as:1,4,5
- Bone weakening (osteoporosis).
- Thyroid problems.
- Lack of vitamins and minerals.
- Low potassium levels in the blood.
- Decrease in white blood cells.
- Amenorrhea (absence of menstruation in females).
- Lowered testosterone in males.
- Tooth decay.
- Muscle loss and weakness.
- Hair loss.
- Abnormally low blood pressure and heart rate, which can lead to heart failure.
- Kidney problems.
- Death from health complications.
Treatment can help reverse some of the effects of anorexia and help you get your life back. Call to get more information about rehab programs.
In addition to the physical health problems that anorexia causes, a person may have other anorexia side effects, such as:
- Mood swings.
- Lowered self-esteem and self-worth.
- Strained personal relationships.
- Poor school and work performance.
- Missing out on important activities.
- Lying to others.
- Avoiding social situations where food is present.
Though perhaps not as dire as anorexia’s health complications, these social, emotional, and behavioral changes can have significant negative impacts on a person’s life.
Depression and Anorexia
Many people with anorexia suffer from depression and may exhibit symptoms such as:
- Depressed mood.
- Social withdrawal.
- Reduced interest in sex.
Many of these symptoms may be related to semi-starvation or from being heavily focused on eating and weight.
Depression and anorexia can influence each other. A person may have depression, which leads to anorexia. Alternatively, a person suffering from anorexia may develop depression because of their illness.
Anorexia Facts and Statistics
The following are some facts and statistics about anorexia and how many people are affected.
- 90-95% of people with anorexia are women.1
- Between 0.5-1% of American women suffer from anorexia.1
- The prevalence rate among teenage girls is between 0.3-0.7%.7
- 33-50% of people suffering from anorexia have a co-occurring mood disorder such as depression.8
- 50% of people suffering from anorexia have a co-occurring anxiety disorder.8
- Up to two-thirds of people with anorexia have obsessive-compulsive disorder.6
- Between 5-20% of people who suffer from anorexia will die.1
- Suicide is responsible for 50% of deaths associated with anorexia.6
Getting Help for Anorexia
If you or someone you love is struggling with anorexia, there is hope. Treatment can help people gain weight and restore health as well as address underlying psychological causes.4
Treatment can be difficult, and many people relapse. But long-term studies indicate that approximately 50-70% of people recover from anorexia. The most effective treatment consists of a combination of medicine, psychotherapy, and family therapy.6
To learn more about anorexia treatment options for yourself or your loved one, contact our recovery support team for information and resources at .
Read next: Anorexia Treatment Program Options
. National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Anorexia Nervosa.
. MentalHealth.Gov. Anorexia Nervosa.
. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC.
. Berger, F. (2016). Anorexia. U.S. National Library of Medicine.
. Mayo Clinic. (2016). Anorexia Nervosa.
. Ehrlich, S. (2015). Anorexia Nervosa. University of Maryland Medical Center.
. Lock, J. & La Via, M.C. (2015). Practice Parameter for The Assessment and Treatment of Children and Adolescents with Eating Disorders. Journal of The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 54(5): 412-425.
. National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. Eating Disorder Statistics.