Disease & Disorders

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Anorexia Nervosa

What is anorexia nervosa?
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that stems from a preoccupation with weight, food, and body image. It is characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight or getting fat. Between 85 percent and 90 percent of all cases occur among women, most often during adolescence or the twenties, but anorexia nervosa can occur later (and earlier) in life, even among young children.

What are the symptoms of anorexia nervosa?
With anorexia nervosa body weight drops to less than 85 percent of normal for age and height. Patients tend to deny the seriousness of their low weight and have a disturbed and unrealistic view of how much they weigh and how they look. A women of childbearing age who stops menstruating for three or more consecutive cycles is considered affected. The disorder can lead to a number of life-threatening medical complications including cardiac abnormalities (slow heart rate, disturbances in the heart’s rhythm), dangerously low blood pressure, dangerously low body temperature and a low white blood cell count. Other symptoms can include chronic constipation, osteoporosis, and, among teenagers, slowed growth or development, short stature, infertility, hair loss and nail destruction. One tip-off to an unhealthy preoccupation with weight among young girls is how often they weigh themselves. A study from the University of Minnesota published in the December, 2006, issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health found that girls who weighed themselves frequently were more likely to develop anorexia nervosa or other eating disorders.

What are the causes of anorexia nervosa?
While the cause is unknown, biological, psychological and socio-cultural factors influence the development of anorexia nervosa including the powerful influences of the entertainment and fashion industries, which have fostered the perception that beauty and sexual attractiveness equate with being ultra-thin. Those affected with anorexia nervosa tend to be perfectionists and have a personal or family history of obesity, eating disorders, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, anger, low self-esteem or loneliness, a personal history of sexual abuse, teasing and harassment. Participation in competitive sports such as figure-skating, gymnastics, dance and crew, in which body shape and size are a factor in performance, can increase the risk among both boys and girls. Wrestling also poses a risk for young men.

What is the conventional treatment of anorexia?
Treatment depends on the severity of the illness. Hospitalization may be required for those who have lost an excessive amount of weight very quickly or those who have developed serious metabolic problems, clinical depression, psychosis or who are considered at risk for suicide. For less severe cases, treatment may include psychotherapy, cognitive or behavioral therapy, nutrition counseling, medical monitoring and antidepressant drugs. Treatment is most successful when anorexia nervosa is diagnosed early in its course. The longer it persists, the more difficult it is to treat.

What therapies does Dr. Weil recommend for anorexia nervosa?
Eating disorders require professional medical treatment, including family therapy to learn how to help an affected child or other relative. After recovery, some complementary therapies can help prevent relapses. Both touch and movement therapies such as the Feldenkrais Method, a type of bodywork, can be beneficial. The exercises can re-educate the brain and nervous system to develop new ways of moving and perceiving the body. Some patients have improved with a combination of dance/movement therapy. Regular massage may reduce anxiety and depression and help foster a healthier body image.