Anorexia Nervosa Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention, Home Remedies

Anorexia Nervosa Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention, Home Remedies

What is anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is a life-threatening eating disorder that is characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. The disorder is diagnosed when a person weighs at least 15 percent less than his or her normal body weight. Persons with this disorder may have an intense fear of weight gain, even when they are underweight. They may diet or exercise too much or use other ways to lose weight. Extreme weight loss in people with anorexia nervosa can lead to dangerous health problems and even death.

Anorexia Nervosa Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention, Home Remedies

Anorexia Nervosa is usually developed during adolescence and generally has an earlier age of onset than Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorder (the latter are often developed during late adolescence or early adulthood). However like all eating disorders, Anorexia Nervosa can be developed at any age or stage of life for both males and females.

The term anorexia literally means "loss of appetite." However, this definition is misleading as people with anorexia nervosa are often hungry but refuse food anyway. People with anorexia nervosa have intense fears of becoming fat and sees themselves as fat even when they are very slender. These individuals may try to correct this perceived "flaw" by strictly limiting food intake and exercising excessively in order to lose weight.

Who gets anorexia nervosa?

People with anorexia nervosa tend to be very high achievers, performing very well in school, sports, work, and other activities. They might stop eating to feel that they have control over some part of their lives, or they might refuse to eat to "rebel" against their loved ones. Anorexia nervosa usually begins around the time of puberty, but it can develop at any time.

Eating disorders are more common in females than in males. The risk of developing an eating disorder is greater in actors, models, dancers, and athletes in sports where appearance and/or weight are important, such as wrestling, gymnastics, and figure skating.

Read more:

Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Injuries Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention

What are the causes of anorexia nervosa?

The exact cause of anorexia nervosa is not known, but research suggests that a combination of certain personality traits, emotions and thinking patterns, as well as biological and environmental factors might be responsible.

People with anorexia nervosa often use food and eating as a way to gain a sense of control when other areas of their lives are very stressful or when they feel overwhelmed. Feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, anxiety, anger, or loneliness also might contribute to the development of the disorder. In addition, people with eating disorders might have troubled relationships or have a history of being teased about their size or weight. Pressure from peers and a society that equates thinness and physical appearance with beauty also can have an impact on the development of anorexia nervosa.

Eating disorders also might have physical causes. Changes in hormones that control how the body and mind maintain mood, appetite, thinking, and memory might foster eating disorders. The fact that anorexia nervosa tends to run in families also suggests that a susceptibility to the disorder might be inherited.

Risk factors have been associated with anorexia nervosa

  • Being overly obsessed with rules
  • Having a tendency towards depression
  • Being overly worried about one's weight and shape
  • Being excessively worried, doubtful and/or scared about the future
  • Being perfectionist
  • Having a negative self image
  • Having eating problems during early childhood or infancy
  • Having had an anxiety disorder during childhood
  • Holding specific cultural/social ideas regarding beauty and health
  • Inhibition - the individual restrains or controls his or her behavior and expression

Environmental factors - may include the hormonal changes that occur during puberty, plus feelings of anxiety, stress and low self-esteem.

Anorexia Nervosa Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention, Home Remedies
Anorexia Nervosa

Many experts believe that some young females who in Western cultures are exposed to multiple messages through the media that being thin is beautiful, are more susceptible to developing anorexia nervosa. However, research carried out in the University of Granada, Spain, found the incidence of eating disorders was considerably higher among Muslim adolescents than their Christian peers.

Other environmental factors some experts believe may contribute include physical abuse, sexual abuse, issues with family relationships, being bullied, other school stress (e.g. exams), bereavement, and a stressful life event, such as the breakdown of a relationship or becoming unemployed.

Biological factors - according to NEDA6 (National Eating Disorders Association), studies are finding that in some people with eating disorders certain brain chemicals that control digestion, appetite and hunger may be unbalanced. Nobody is sure what the implications of this might be - further studies are underway to find out.

Experts believe susceptibility to eating disorders may be partly driven by a person's genes. In many cases, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and other eating disorders have been found to run in families.

What are the signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa?

Rapid weight loss over several weeks or months

Continuing to diet even when thin or when weight is very low

Having an unusual interest in food, calories, nutrition or cooking

Intense fear of gaining weight

Strange eating habits or routines, such as eating in secret

Feeling fat, even if underweight

Inability to realistically assess one’s own body weight

Striving for perfection and being very self-critical

Undue influence of body weight or shape on self-esteem

Depression, anxiety, or irritability

Infrequent or irregular menstrual periods in females

Laxative, diuretic, or diet pill use

Frequent illness

Wearing loose clothing to hide weight loss

Compulsive exercising

Feeling worthless or hopeless

Social withdrawal

Physical symptoms that develop over time, including: low tolerance of cold weather, brittle hair and nails, dry or yellowing skin, anemia, constipation, swollen joints and a new growth of thin hair over the body.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Talk to your health care provider if a loved one is:

  • Too focused on weight
  • Over-exercising
  • Limiting the food he or she eats
  • Very underweight
  • Getting medical help right away can make an eating disorder less severe.

How is anorexia nervosa diagnosed?

If your doctor thinks that you may have an eating disorder, he or she will compare your weight with the expected weight for someone of your height and age. He or she will also check your heart, lungs, blood pressure, skin, and hair to look for problems caused by not eating enough. You may also have blood tests or X-rays.

Your doctor may ask questions about how you feel. It is common for a treatable mental health problem such as depression or anxiety to play a part in an eating disorder.

How is anorexia nervosa treated?

The biggest challenge in treating anorexia nervosa is helping the person recognize that he or she has an illness. Most people with anorexia deny that they have an eating disorder. People often enter treatment only when their condition is serious.

Like all eating disorders, anorexia nervosa requires a comprehensive treatment plan that is adjusted to meet the needs of each patient. Goals of treatment include restoring the person to a healthy weight, treating emotional issues such as low self-esteem, correcting distorted thinking patterns, and developing long-term behavioral changes. Treatment most often involves a combination of the following strategies:


This is a type of individual counseling that focuses on changing the thinking (cognitive therapy) and behavior (behavioral therapy) of a person with an eating disorder. Treatment includes practical techniques for developing healthy attitudes toward food and weight, as well as approaches for changing the way the person responds to difficult situations.


Certain antidepressant medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) might be used to help control anxiety and depression associated with an eating disorder.

Nutrition counseling

This strategy is designed to teach a healthy approach to food and weight, to help restore normal eating patterns, and to teach the importance of nutrition and a balanced diet.

Group and/or family therapy

Family support is very important to treatment success. It is important that family members understand the eating disorder and recognize its signs and symptoms. People with eating disorders might benefit from group therapy, where they can find support, and openly discuss their feelings and concerns with others who share common experiences and problems.


Hospitalization might be needed to treat severe weight loss that has resulted in malnutrition and other serious mental or physical health complications, such as heart disorders, serious depression and risk of suicide. Intravenous (in the vein) fluids, nasogastric tube feedings or total parenteral nutrition (TPN) might be needed in cases of severe malnutrition. TPN is used for patients who cannot or should not get their nutrition through eating.

What are the complications of anorexia nervosa?

The complications of anorexia nervosa are much less likely to occur if the patient is diagnosed early and receives prompt and proper treatment.


The South Carolina Department of Mental Health states that eating disorders have the highest mortality rates of any mental illness. It also quotes a statistic that between 5% to 10% of anorexics die within 10 years of contracting the disease (18% to 20% within 20 years).

Cardiovascular problems

According to the Wexner Medical Center, at the Ohio State University, up 95% of patients who are hospitalized have low heart rates. Changes in heartbeat raise the risk of myocardial damage (damage to the heart muscle).

Hematological problems

There is a much higher risk of developing leukopenia (low white blood cell count) and anemia (low red blood cell count).

Gastrointestinal problems

Movement in the intestines slows down significantly if the person is severely underweight and eating too little. This resolves when they start eating well.

Kidney problems

People with anorexia nervosa commonly suffer from dehydration, which in turn leads to highly concentrated urine. The patient is more likely to produce more urine (polyuria) because the kidneys cannot concentrate urine properly. When the patient's weight returns to normal, the kidneys usually recover.

Hormonal problems

Some anorexic patients have lower levels of growth hormones, which may be why some adolescent patients experience growth retardation. When the patient starts eating a healthy diet, normal growth resumes.

Bone fractures

These are much more likely to occur in people with anorexia nervosa. Patients whose bones have not fully grown yet have a significantly higher risk of developing osteopenia (reduced bone tissue) and bone loss (osteoporosis).

What should you do if you think someone has anorexia?

It can be very scary to realize that someone you care about has an eating disorder. But you can help.

If you think your child has anorexia:

  • Talk to her. Tell her why you are worried. Let her know you care.
  • Make an appointment for you and your child to meet with a doctor or a counselor.
If you're worried about someone you know:

  • Tell someone who can make a difference, like a parent, teacher, counselor, or doctor. A person with anorexia may insist that she doesn't need help, but she does. The sooner she gets treatment, the sooner she will be healthy again.

Can anorexia nervosa be prevented?

There's no guaranteed way to prevent anorexia or other eating disorders. Primary care physicians (pediatricians, family physicians and internists) may be in a good position to identify early indicators of an eating disorder and prevent the development of full-blown illness. They can ask questions about eating habits and satisfaction with appearance during routine medical appointments, for instance.

Although it might not be possible to prevent all cases of anorexia nervosa, it is helpful to begin treatment in people as soon as they begin to have symptoms. In addition, teaching and encouraging healthy eating habits and realistic attitudes about food and body image also might be helpful in preventing the development or worsening of eating disorders.

If you notice a family member or friend with low self-esteem, severe dieting habits and dissatisfaction with appearance, consider talking to him or her about these issues. Although you may not be able to prevent an eating disorder from developing, you can talk about healthier behavior or treatment options.

Lifestyle and home remedies for Anorexia Nervosa

When you have anorexia, it can be difficult to take care of yourself properly. In addition to professional treatment, follow these steps:

  • Stick to your treatment plan. Don't skip therapy sessions and try not to stray from meal plans, even if they make you uncomfortable.
  • Talk to your doctor about appropriate vitamin and mineral supplements. If you're not eating well, chances are your body isn't getting all of the nutrients it needs.
  • Don't isolate yourself from caring family members and friends who want to see you get healthy. Understand that they have your best interests at heart.
  • Resist urges to weigh yourself or check yourself in the mirror frequently. These may do nothing but fuel your drive to maintain unhealthy habits.

What is the outlook for people with anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa, like other eating disorders, gets worse the longer it is left untreated. The sooner the disorder is diagnosed and treated, the better the outcome. Anorexia nervosa can be treated, allowing the person to return to a healthy weight. However, people with anorexia nervosa often will not admit they have a problem and might resist treatment or refuse to follow the treatment plan.

Although treatment is possible, the risk of relapse is high. Recovery from anorexia usually requires long-term treatment as well as a strong commitment by the individual.

Support of family members and other loved ones can help ensure that the person receives the needed treatment.

The future of anorexia nervosa

Given the complexity of anorexia and how many people with this illness continue to suffer from it despite receiving treatment, researchers are seeking to better understand how this illness develops and how it is most effectively treated. For example, as individuals with anorexia tend to have low levels of cortisol in their blood, and behaviors like dieting and exercise tend to increase cortisol levels, giving anorexia sufferers cortisol supplements is being explored with some success. The best approaches for psychotherapy in adults with anorexia, the possible benefit of 12-step programs in treatment, the role of genetics in the development of this disorder, and the effectiveness of various medications in treating anorexia are other areas of continued need for research.