Anorexia Nervosa: Causes, Effects, Treatments

-By Sania Patel


The Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines mental health as the emotions, psychological, and social aspects that make up one’s well-being. These parts can be greatly affected by internal and external conditions, which can further affect how certain people think, feel, and act. The state of one’s mental health can determine the structure of their daily life, their habits, relationships, physical health, and management of stress. Often, mental health is used as an overlying word to describe mental disorders and illnesses. Both mental illness and mental disorder refer to the same overlying theme but differ slightly in their exact definition.

Mental disorders describe a state in which a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, and behavior are affected. Mental illnesses are the corresponding health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking, or behavior. These effects can be short-term or chronic, depending on the type of disorder and treatment received.

When used in conversation, mental disorders are widely recognized and acknowledged. Some examples include depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, autism, dementia, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Mental disorders, or illnesses - the term can be used interchangeably - are extremely common in the United States. According to the American Psychiatric Association, nearly one in five (approximately 19 percent) of U.S. adults experience some form of mental illness. Of that number, another 4.1 percent suffer from a serious mental illness. Serious mental illnesses include mental, behavioral, or emotional disorders that result in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits the performance of daily activities.

One example of a mental health disorder is Anorexia nervosa. Commonly simplified to anorexia, this mental health disorder is grouped in the category of eating disorders. People who face anorexia are characterized by abnormally low body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight, and a distorted perception of weight. People with anorexia often go to extreme measures to control their weight and shape, such as taking weight-loss drugs, over-exercising, and avoiding social interaction. To prevent weight gain or to continue losing weight, patients often take laxatives, diet aids, diuretics, or enemas. They also may wear certain clothing and other restricting items to force their bodies to develop in a certain way.

Contrary to popular belief, the main causes of anorexia do not derive from food. People experiencing this disorder often use anorexia as a way to cope with emotional problems or major changes in their life. In many cases, thinness is used to measure self-worth. Today, anorexia has become a worldwide problem, as the main cause now comes from social media. Often, people, mostly teenage girls, compare themselves to influencers, models, and other teenage girls. This constant exposure can cause people to spiral into depression, while they develop a deep hatred for their bodies. Often, anorexic patients want to achieve a perceived perfection, while finding a way to control their life. There can also be other biological, environmental, and psychological factors that play a role in the development of the disease.

There are both physical and mental symptoms of anorexia that relate to starvation. People suffering from anorexia may display greater aggression, depression, anxiety, and mood swings. They may actively avoid social interaction and gatherings and can display sudden irritability and occasional moments of binge-eating. Anorexic patients also may display excessive hair loss, weaker nails, tiredness, and sagging of skin. Some physical symptoms are the overall display of weight loss, as well as feeling constantly cold. Overall, emotional symptoms include dieting or fasting, exercising excessively, binge-eating, and self-induced vomiting. Physical symptoms include low blood pressure, eroded teeth, swelling, dry or yellowish skin, insomnia, dizziness or fainting, absence of menstruation, constipation, fatigue, and abnormal blood counts.

The emotional and behavioral consequences of anorexia are considered minor, in comparison to the physical health effects. Anorexia can cause an increase in mood swings, severe depression, stress, and irritability. Anorexia can greatly affect one’s physical health through the cardiovascular system, gastrointestinal system, neurological system, and endocrine system.

Anorexia causes the cardiovascular system to deteriorate, because, due to the intake of fewer calories, organs and muscles are first decomposed to allow the human body to survive. Pulse and blood pressure levels drop, as the heart has less fuel to pump blood and fewer cells to pump with. If an anorexic patient purges using vomiting or laxatives, electrolytes are depleted from the body, and these chemicals’ main function is to help the heartbeat and muscles contract. These effects compound and reduce the resting metabolic rate to converse energy.

In the gastrointestinal system, anorexia causes slowed digestion, which can lead to stomach pain, bloating, nausea, blood sugar fluctuations, blocked intestines, bacterial infections, inadequate nutritional intake. Constipation, the most common cause of anorexia, can further harm a person by leading to laxative abuse, binge-eating, frequent vomiting, pancreatitis, and intestinal perforation. Due to the lack of bowel movements, infections such as toxoplasmosis and toxocariasis may occur.

Anorexia also affects the neurological system by depriving the brain of the energy it needs to function and complete everyday tasks. Extreme hunger or fullness at bedtime can result in insomnia, which can increase the risk of sleep apnea. The brain and blood vessels will struggle to push enough blood to the brain, which may result in fainting, dizziness, or frequent headaches. Electrolyte imbalances can lead to seizures and muscle cramps, and a lack of lipids can cause numbing in the hands and feet.

Finally, the endocrine system can be affected, mostly hurting females. With a decreased caloric intake, thyroid and sex hormones - estrogen and testosterone - can lower. This can cause menstruation to fail and can lead to increased bone loss. Without these hormones, the growth and maturity of one’s body cannot occur. Anorexia, in both males and females, will result in decreased height and muscle growth, and it also affects the normal developments during puberty.

Anorexia is a mental illness that has dire effects on both physical and psychological well-being. Due to the nature of this disorder, there are no medications available. Medical professionals offer team approaches to defeat the disorder. Regular therapy and meetings with dieticians are advised to find the root cause of the illness and help a patient’s body heal from the forced starvation. Constant checkups from pediatricians and other medical professionals are also recommended to build treatment plans and analyze the effects of anorexia on the patient.

To conclude, anorexia nervosa is a mental illness mainly caused by environmental factors. It causes forced starvation through hyper-awareness of body weight, shape, and size. Anorexia can deteriorate people’s mental and physical growth and lead to disease, nerve damage, heart failure, and other dire effects. When one is suffering from this disorder, it is important to constantly care for them and help them find the direct root of the disease. By identifying the main causes, one can step out of anorexia and prevent relapses in the future.