Only 32 percent of people with anorexia are actually treated by a doctor or receiving medical care, shows a recent study conducted by the Anorexia Nervosa Genetics Initiative at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane.

Anorexia nervosa or simply anorexia is a serious eating disorder, which can be potentially life-threatening. It is characterized by self-starvation and extreme weight loss, and involves an illogical fear of weight gain and a distorted perception of body image and self-worth.

The disorder requires serious and long-term medical attention.

The new study highlights the importance of parent intervention to detect the signs and symptoms of anorexia in their adolescent children. The condition, which is more of a psychological disorientation, is more prevalent in females than males. Typically, the condition first develops around the age of 16 to 17.

There are two common types of anorexia:

1. Binge / Purge Anorexia Nervosa: The person will purge whatever he or she eats, after being overwhelmed with the guilt of overeating. The person compensates for this by vomiting, abusing laxatives, or exercising excessively.

2. Restrictive Anorexia Nervosa: The person limits food intake, consuming only a minimal amount that is way below the body's requirement of energy and calories. This is as good as slowly starving oneself.

Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia

People suffering from anorexia may exhibit one or more of the following signs and symptoms:

–Excessive dieting despite being underweight

–Obsessively counting calories and fat content in food

–Abuse of appetite suppressants, laxatives and diuretics

–Weird eating patterns, such as eating alone, hiding food or cutting food into tiny pieces

–Repetitively weighing themselves or seeing their body in the mirror all the time

–Physical symptoms: feeling lightheaded or dizzy, depressed, tired and lethargic and experiencing hair loss or dry skin

–Staying aloof all the time, not spending time with friends and family, and becoming isolated

–Amenorrhea: an abnormal absence of menstruation or loss of three consecutive menstrual cycles

Causes of Anorexia

The exact cause of this condition is unclear, but it is believed to stem from an amalgamation of varied psychological, environmental and genetic factors:

–Difficulty in handling stress

–Excessive worrying and feeling uncertain about the future

–Being emotionally disconnected

–Tendency toward anxiety and depression

–Setting unrealistic and strict goals

–Peer pressure in school, college or work

–Physical or sexual abuse

–A traumatic life event, such as the breakdown of a relationship, losing a job or loved one

–Onset of puberty (when hormonal changes begin)

–Culture promoted in social media, magazines, and TV reinforcing the idea of being "slim" as the standard of beauty

–Genetic factors such as family history of eating disorder or depression

Anorexia, although a disease by itself, can lead to various other health complications:

–During pregnancy, anorexia can lead to miscarriage, premature birth or the need to have a cesarean delivery.

–Osteoporosis (low bone density), which may further lead to bone fracture, is a common complication of anorexia.

–Sexual problems, such as amenorrhea and infertility in women and the loss of sex drive and erectile dysfunction in men, can occur.

–Heart problems leading to low blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, heart failure and edema can arise.

Treatment for Anorexia

The first step to treating this condition is for the patient to acknowledge and accept the condition. The major roadblock generally seems to be denial. Most often, people suffering from anorexia simply refuse to accept the fact that they are actually suffering from a health problem that needs medical attention.

Once the person overcomes the denial stage, with the help of varied classes of healthcare professionals including medical doctors, dietitians and therapists, the condition can be treated.

Treatment can take up to several years with possible relapses in between.

Medical: Any other serious illness in the body that may have occurred as a result of malnutrition should be treated.

Nutritional: Under the guidance of a nutritionist or dietitian, the person is put on a suitable meal plan for weight restoration.

Therapy: The goal of therapy is to address any underlying psychological issues and causes related to the eating disorder and help the person heal from them. Therapy helps them come to terms with such issues, and enables them to cope better with their emotions.

Photo: Benjamin Watson | Flickr 

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