Anorexia Nervosa: Types, Signs, Symptoms, Causes, Effects, Diagnosis and Treatment

women with Anorexia Nervosa


Many individuals wish they looked different or they could fix something in their physical appearance. With the vast influence of media today, more women want to have a slimmer body in the hopes to be accepted by society.

The social stigma imposed on bulkier and large-framed women has taken a toll on the lives of many individuals, especially teens. This leads to the increasing number of people suffering from eating disorders.

Anorexia nervosa (AN) is an eating disorder and possibly life-threatening eating disorder characterized by weight loss, difficulty maintaining the proper body weight for height and age, little body weight relative to stature, irrational fear of weight gain and distorted body image.

This condition is potentially fatal if it’s not treated properly. It can affect many people from all walks of life, all ages, genders, races and sexual orientations.

2Anorexia Nervosa Types

Binge/Purge Type

Individuals who have this type of anorexia will purge when he or she eats. This occurs as a result of the overwhelming feelings of guilt. They induce vomiting, abuse laxatives and exercise excessively. Moreover, they also engage in binge eating wherein they eat large amounts of food as a result of feeling a “loss of control.” The vicious cycle goes on and on.

Restricting Type

This kind of anorexia is characterized by the limit imposed on the quantity of food consumed. This may lead to eating a minimal amount of food that is way below the body’s caloric needs. In some cases, it ends up by starving one’s self.

The Alarming Rate

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, at least 30 million people across the United States suffer from an eating disorder. About 0.9 percent of American women suffer from anorexia in their lifetime, and alarmingly, one in 5 anorexia deaths is by suicide.

About 50 to 80 percent of the risk of anorexia is genetic, which means a family history of the condition heightens the risk. Anorexia is the third most common chronic disease among teens, after type 1 diabetes and asthma. Anorexia most commonly affects girls and women. However, it has become more common in boys and men too, over the recent years.

3Signs and Symptoms

A person suffering from anorexia nervosa may manifest one or several signs and symptoms. Individuals with anorexia tend to go great lengths to hide their eating behavior from family and friends. They often lie about what they’ve eaten or pretended that they’ve already eaten.

Physical Signs

  • Rapid weight loss or frequent weight changes
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Development of lanugo: fine hair that grows on the face and body
  • Loss or thinning hair
  • Loss or irregular menstruation
  • Decreased libido in men
  • Cold intolerance, even if it’s warm
  • Lethargy
  • Feeling bloated and constipated
  • Little energy
  • Facial changes i.e. sunken eyes or looking pale

Behavioral Signs

 Dieting behavior like fasting, avoiding certain food groups and counting calories

  • Obsessive behaviors related to weight and body shape (frequent weighing, looking at the mirror all the time and pinching waist)
  • Binge eating
  • Excessive exercising
  • Radical changes in food preferences
  • Obsessive rituals on food
  • Eating in private and avoiding eating with other people

Psychological Signs

  • Extreme body dissatisfaction
  • Preoccupation with eating, food, weight and body shape
  • Feeling anxious or irritable during meal times
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Reduced ability to think and concentration problems
  • Distorted body image, wherein one sees herself as overweight but is underweight


There is no exact cause of anorexia nervosa, but it’s a complex condition that occurs from a combination of many factors – social, biological and emotional.

Eating disorders are believed to result from a combination of environmental, social and biological vulnerability factors. When the eating disorder develops, the changes in the body play a role in sustaining the irrational patterns of thinking and behaviors involved. For example, when a person starves herself, it increases the preoccupation with food and the risk of binge-eating.

The common risk factors of anorexia nervosa include:

  • Having anxiety disorder as a child
  • Negative self-image
  • Being worried about self-image, weight, and shape
  • Eating problems during infancy and childhood
  • Extreme body dissatisfaction
  • Preoccupation with eating, food, weight and body shape
  • Body dissatisfaction
  • Low self-esteem
  • Perfectionism
  • Dysfunctional family relationships
  • Family history of eating disorders
  • History of sexual and physical abuse

5Effects Of Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is a severe eating disorder that may affect the body. The common effects of anorexia to the body include:

Brain and Nerves: fear of gaining weight, sad, moody, irritable and changes in brain chemistry

Blood: anemia and other blood problems

Heart: slow heart rate, low blood pressure, palpitations and heart failure

Intestines: Constipation and bloating

Kidneys: Kidney stones and kidney failure

Body Fluids: decreased sodium, magnesium, and potassium

Joints and Muscles: swollen joints, osteoporosis, and increased risk of fractures

Hair: Hair gets brittle because of malnutrition

Skin: bruise easily, dry skin, yellow skin, and brittle nails

If anorexia worsens without due treatment, it may lead to severe complications such as:

  • Iron deficiency anemia
  • Immunosuppression
  • Intestinal problems
  • Irregular menses
  • Increased risk of infertility
  • Death


Medical Examination

For the doctor to accurately diagnose your illness, a complete medical history taking is needed. The questions that will be asked include if you’ve lost a lot of weight lately, how you feel about your weight and if you’re worried about it, and if you think you have an eating problem.

Weight and Body Mass Index (BMI)

Aside from these questions, a physical examination is needed. The doctor will also evaluate your weight, body mass index (BMI) and height. The normal and ideal BMI is between 18.5 to 24.9. In people with anorexia, their BMI readings are below 17.5.

Vital Signs

Other tests for anorexia nervosa include taking the vital signs like temperature, pulse rate, and blood pressure.

Electrocardiogram (ECG)

Since people with anorexia are more likely to suffer from heart disease such as an irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia, an electrocardiogram (ECG) is needed.

Blood Tests

The doctor will request for blood works to check the general health of the patient and the levels of chemicals or minerals like potassium, magnesium, sodium, and others.


  • Psychological Treatment

Psychological treatment of anorexia nervosa is effective in reducing the severity, duration, and impact of the condition. This method aims to reduce risk and to promote weight gain, regular eating habits, and exercise behaviors. Its ultimate goal is full physical and psychological recovery.

  • Behavioral Therapy

This form of therapy aims to determine and help change potentially unhealthy behaviors like eating disorders. It functions on the idea that all behaviors are learned and all bad habits can be corrected and changed.

  • Cognitive Analytic Therapy

Cognitive analytic therapy or CAR is a type of therapy that uses insights from various facets of analytic psychology and cognitive therapy. It aims to understand why a person thinks, behaves and feels the way they do.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common kind of talk therapy or psychotherapy. A mental health professional will work with the patient until the condition is alleviated or treated.

  •  Focal Psychodynamic Therapy

The Focal Psychodynamic Therapy aims to correct the unhealthy habit. This works well with cognitive behavioral therapy.

Other treatments for anorexia nervosa include the use of antidepressants like selective reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or antipsychotics. However, medicines should not be used as the primary treatment for AN.

Getting Help From Doctors And Family Members

Individuals with eating disorders often don’t seek help because they are afraid or they do not recognize the ongoing problem. The most important thing about people who are suffering from anorexia is they need help to feel better.

Don’t forget to seek medical help if you have any of the signs and symptoms. If you had your consultation with your general practitioner, he or she might refer you to a mental health expert for immediate treatment.

The family and friends can also play important roles in providing the needed support. Supporting someone with anorexia is necessary to reduce anxiety and other symptoms.

8Bulimia vs. Anorexia

Both anorexia nervosa and bulimia are characterized by the obsession for becoming thin and a disturbance in eating behavior. They are the most common clinically accepted and recognized eating disorders.

The only difference is that anorexia tends to adopt a highly restrictive diet, obsess over thinness and self-starve involving significant weight loss of about 15 percent or more of the ideal body weight.

On the other hand, patients who have bulimia are at average weight or more. Bulimia presents itself in the form of overeating or binging, followed by purging through the use of induced vomiting and laxatives.


Anorexia nervosa is treatable depending on the response of the patient. It can take several years of treatment to recover fully. Though relapses are common, continuous therapy is needed to prevent them from happening.

Despite the fact that it’s uncommon, anorexia is one of the causes of mental-health related deaths. Most individuals with this type of condition may die due to malnutrition or an apparent suicide.