What Is Anorexia?
Anorexia nervosa, or anorexia, is a psychological eating disorder identified by unusually low body weight. The Latin roots of the word anorexia mean “without appetite.” While anorexics do have an appetite, they suppress it, deny hunger and refuse to eat. Some may think anorexia is about food and weight, but really the disorder is a psychological one and is often developed as a coping mechanism for depression or an emotional trauma.
Anorexics practice self-starvation by restricting their food intake or bingeing and purging. You may recognize an anorexic because of their low body weight and obsession with a thin figure. Anorexics also have an intense fear of gaining weight, distorted sense of body weight and self image, and experience extreme, needless weight loss.
Women are typically associated with anorexia, but the disorder also affects males. It is common for anorexia to be more visible in some industries (mostly body-centric fields like fashion, dance and athletics).
Left unchecked, the disorder can cause many serious health problems and can be fatal. In fact, it is the most fatal of all psychiatric disorders.
Restrictive Type Anorexia
The most well-known type of anorexia is restrictive, in which the person limits their food consumption to near self-starvation. Their intense anxiety and fear of gaining weight is often linked obsessive compulsive disorder. You may notice restrive anorexics obsessing over the number of calories they intake, how many pieces they cut their food into and how many times they chew a piece of food before swallowing it.
Binge-Eating/Purging Type Anorexia
Some anorexics control their weight by eating a significant amount of food (bingeing) and then removing the food from their stomachs before any calories or nutrients can be absorbed (purging). Purging can be done by vomiting or misusing laxatives, diuretics, enemas, diet aids and obsessive exercising.
Bulimia nervosa — another eating disorder — is also characterized by bingeing and purging. The main difference between bulimia and binge/purge type anorexia is the person’s body weight. Those with bulimia typically have a normal body weight or are overweight, while those with binge/purge type anorexia have an unusually low body weight characteristic of anorexia.
What Causes Anorexia?
Anorexia and other eating disorders are caused by a mix of natural and environmental stimuli.
Genetics and a family history of anorexia can predispose some people to suffer from the disorder. Although scientists aren’t sure of the mechanism of this relationship, they believe it has something to do with a person’s ability to produce serotonin, the brain chemical that regulates feelings of happiness.
A person who experiences other psychological conditions like obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety and depression is also more likely to develop an eating disorder than others.
Environmental factors like peer pressure are a significant part of why many people develop eating disorders. Most anorexics are teens or twenty-somethings, which supports this theory. These ages are when your child is developing physically and discovering who they are as a person. As a parent, you must understand your child’s self-esteem is vulnerable during this time. They may be easily influenced by social pressures to look and act like their peers or idols. Being teased for looking different or being bullied at school or on social media can also influence teens.
Drugs and Anorexia
When a person is found to have an eating disorder that co-occurs with a substance use disorder, it’s called a dual diagnosis. Research shows dual-diagnosis is very common with the abuse of food, alcohol and drugs. Data reveals nearly half of the eating disorder population also abuse alcohol or drugs — about five times more than the rate in the general population. And 35% of alcohol or drug abusers have eating disorders — about 11 times more than the rate in the general population.
Anorexics may abuse certain drugs for specific reasons.
Binge-eating/purge type anorexics often abuse alcohol (despite the caloric intake) because it can cause vomiting, which is a common method of purging. These types of anorexics also misuse over-the-counter laxatives and diuretics as a way to purge without vomiting.
Restrictive type anorexics often abuse over-the-counter diet pills and weight loss supplements and prescription stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall because they can cause appetite suppression. Studies show some anorexics also turn to harder illicit drugs, like methamphetamine, because they cause weight loss.
Although studies reveal how commonplace dual diagnosis between an eating disorder and drug or alcohol addiction is, it’s still unclear which causes the other — does the Adderall-induced appetite suppression lead to anorexia, or do anorexics abuse Adderall because it suppresses their appetite? Scientists aren’t sure because they regularly see examples of both.
Many scientists view eating disorders as a form of addiction, especially because the same factors known to lead to alcohol or drug addiction (genetics, certain personality traits and environmental factors) are also known to lead to eating disorders.
Males vs. Females
Although most people associate eating disorders like anorexia with girls and women, these conditions also affect boys and men. Data varies because researchers have previously focused their studies on women, however some more recent studies show 20% of all anorexics are male.
Pop culture has a huge part to play in the causes behind anorexia, and both boys and girls can be affected by these social pressures. The people seen in advertising, movies and on sports fields all teach impressionable kids and teens a thin figure in women and a lean, muscular figure in men will make them beautiful and give them love, happiness, riches and success.
To achieve this body image, sometimes girls and boys drastically alter their eating habits. Prolonged exposure to these behaviors can easily become an eating disorder. Faced with the pressure to be muscular or stronger in high school sports, boys turn to anabolic steroids frequently.
Symptoms of Anorexia
A slim figure may be the most obvious physical symptom of anorexia — and one your anorexic teen may be hoping for — but the disorder has other physical and mental manifestations.
When afflicted with anorexia, your child may experience:
- Extreme weight loss
- Lack of menstruation
- Trouble sleeping
- Hair loss
If your son or daughter is anorexic, you may notice some signs, including:
- Social withdrawal
- Emotional apathy
- Fear of eating in public
- Obsession with food or exercise
- Downplaying the seriousness of their eating habits
Risks of Anorexia
Anorexia can be a very dangerous disorder and potentially fatal if left unchecked.
The long-term health complications that could arise from anorexia are:
- Severe malnutrition
- Stunted growth
- Slow heart rate
- Low blood pressure
- Increased risk of heart failure
- Loss of menstruation and infertility
- Osteoporosis, or reduced bone density
- Muscle loss and weakness
- Dehydration, which can result in kidney failure
- Dry skin and hair, and possible hair loss
- Lanugo, or growth of small white hairs across the body to keep the person warm
All of these conditions can lead to death, making anorexia the most deadly of all psychiatric disorders. Data shows anorexia presents a 5–10% death rate within 10 years and a 18–20% death rate within 20 years of developing the disorder.
Does My Teenager Need Treatment?
You might be here because you’re frustrated and scared for your child. Perhaps you’re wondering why your teenager can’t simply eat like a normal person. If you have noticed any signs of an addiction or eating disorder in your teen, do not wait to get help. The longer a disorder persists, the more difficult recovery grows. But take heart — all eating disorders and addictions are treatable. You just need to find the right help.
Some teens are able to recover through a combination of outpatient therapy and nutrition counseling. For others, a more intense level of care and support is needed. In some severe cases of anorexia and addiction, a struggling teen may need to be hospitalized so their treatment team can deal with serious physical problems, like malnutrition.
Not all treatment centers are created equally. If your child is suffering from an eating disorder and substance addiction, it’s crucial that you find a facility that specializes in co-occurring disorders. We at TeenRehabCenter.org can help you swim through the seemingly endless facilities, and hone in on the ones that will work best for your child. Start your child’s journey back to recovery — call us today.
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