With today’s society being an intensely image-conscious one, more and more people are pushing themselves to extremes trying to fit in with the unrealistic body standards that are presented to them through magazines, movies and social media. The most extreme limits of this is anorexia nervosa.

What is Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is a psychiatric diagnosis with serious medical consequences. The key features of anorexia include:

  • A relentless drive for weight loss, and a morbid fear of ‘fatness’

  • Self-induced starvation. Sufferers may also partake in extreme exercise regimes, or induce vomiting or use laxatives to lose weight.

  • A disturbed sense of body image – thinking they are more overweight than they are (known as ‘body dysmorphia’)

  • Self-esteem disproportionately based on weight or body image

  • Refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of their weight loss

  • Medical consequences related to low body weight (eg. Loss of periods in women)

What are the risk factors associated with Anorexia Nervosa?

  • Unfortunately, anorexia is disproportionately more common in women, in particular young women. This is likely because of the intense pressure society puts on young women’s appearance.

  • Onset is often between 14-18 years

  • More common in first-world countries

  • More common in certain professions (eg ballet, modelling)

  • More common in those with other psychiatric disorders (depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder)

Why is Anorexia Nervosa so serious?

The extreme low body-weight and malnutrition that comes with self-induced starvation both lead to serious medical consequences that can put the sufferer’s health at great risk and even be fatal. These include:

  • Hypothermia

  • Low blood pressure and fainting

  • Slow heart rate and disturbed heart rhythm (potentially leading to heart failure)

  • Electrolyte and acid-base disturbances (low potassium, low magnesium, high pH)

  • Poor bone health and broken bones

  • Loss of menstrual periods and potentially permanently reduced fertility

  • Damage to the gastrointestinal tract

How is Anorexia Nervosa treated?

Sadly, anorexia nervosa can often be very severe and incredibly difficult to treat successfully. Often hospitalisation may be required to resolve the medical consequences of the disorder. Even after treating the medical issues, continued inpatient care in specialised anorexia facilities may be necessary for a series of counselling and psychotherapy sessions. Continued psychological support is recommended to prevent relapses. If left untreated, anorexia can be rapidly fatal.

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