Anorexia nervosa, also known as just anorexia, is a common eating disorder hallmarked by being chronically underweight, having a constant, compulsive desire to be thinner, a fear of gaining weight, and an avoidance of food. Also, many people who experience anorexia consider themselves to be fat even when they are profoundly thin. Tragically, anorexia nervosa has the highest fatality rate of any psychiatric disorder.
Warning signs of anorexia may be challenging to identify because people who live with the disease often invest considerable effort in hiding their condition, including their thin frame and unhealthy eating habits. For this reason, anorexia often goes unnoticed until prompt medical intervention is needed. Another reason for this may be that many sufferers are teenagers, who already tend to be thinner and more active than some older individuals.
There are a myriad of warning signs to watch for if anorexia is suspected in a loved one, including the following:
- Sudden, profound weight loss
- Avoiding meals, fasting, and making excuses to do so
- Reporting having already eaten when he or she has not
- Being deceptive about the amount of food consumed and weight loss
- Adopting a severely limited diet of very low fat, or very low calorie foods and drinks
- Emergence of bizarre eating rituals such as cutting food into tiny pieces or chewing food then spitting it back out
- Preparing lavish meals for others only then to refuse to eat
- Compulsive weight monitoring
- Frequent scanning for body flaws in mirrors
- Body dysmorphia, or distorted perceptions of body image, such as criticizing oneself for being fat even when underweight
- Eating in secret, never publicly or with others
- Social isolation
- Wearing loose-fitting clothes to conceal thinness
- Menstrual irregularity or loss of period
- Exercising excessively to lose weight or fat
- Obsession with diet that disrupts daily activities
- Fatigue and lethargy from malnourishment
- Dull emotions, moodiness, and irritability
- Frequently disappearing after meals, such as going to the bathroom (perhaps an attempt to purge or vomit)
Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa
Anorexia symptoms fall into three categories: behavioral, mental, and physical. No individual will present with all possible signs of anorexia at one time. Still, if you observe at least a few of the following symptoms in a loved one, you should urge him or her to seek help to avoid more harm to the body as well as potentially life-threatening complications.
Anorexia nervosa is a mental health condition—the primary mental/emotional symptoms of anorexia involve poor self-image and self-esteem, a deep-seated fear of weight gain, and the avoidance of eating. Eating disorders such as anorexia generally cause the sufferer to obsess over food and sacrifice a significant amount of time thinking about their next meal.
Lacking essential nutrients may cause the person who suffers to become emotionally unstable and fragile. An individual living with anorexia may experience severe bouts of sadness, shame, anxiety, depression, irritability, and hopelessness.
Also, the self-destructive behaviors that hallmark anorexia are allowed and even encouraged by the underlying emotional rationalizations that drive them. As such, loved ones may find it challenging to convince the person grappling with the disorder that they need to seek and accept professional help.
Anorexics typically display numerous behaviors considered to be abnormal and harmful by others. Declining to participate in meals is typical behavior that is associated with a fear of gaining weight. Likewise, to lose weight, a person suffering from anorexia may exercise excessively, and only stop when they are utterly exhausted.
It isn’t uncommon for an individual with anorexia to accumulate a stockpile of diet pills and herbal supplements that may be helpful for weight loss or maintenance. Abuse of substances come with secondary risks of addiction and the possibility of overdose, depending on the substance. Also, when a meal is unavoidable, an individual with anorexia may follow it up with a “purge,” and regurgitate food or consume laxatives to avoid weight gain.
Physical Symptoms of Anorexia
As mental and behavioral symptoms associated with anorexia nervosa take their toll on the body, they also induce a multitude of physical symptoms, all of which reinforce each other. These physical symptoms tend to worsen as the eating disorder progresses but can pose significant threats at any stage.
Physical symptoms of anorexia may include the following:
- Fatigue and lethargy
- Dizziness or fainting
- Bluing of fingers (cyanosis)
- Feeling cold
- Dry skin
- Electrolyte imbalances
- Thin and brittle hair/nails
- Swelling of hands and feet
- Menstrual irregularity
- Abnormal heartbeat
- Heart damage
- Death by starvation
- Cardiac arrest
The Role of Drug Abuse and Addiction
Drug and alcohol abuse often co-exist alongside eating disorders such as anorexia. In addition to offering self-medication for negative thoughts and feelings, some substances may have other “benefits” that may interest those with these disorders.
For instance, prescription or illicit drugs such as amphetamines and methamphetamine suppress appetite, and frequent use can rapidly result in weight loss. Also, because anorexia is a compulsive condition heavily steeped in fear, anxiety, and control, substances that can temporarily relieve anxiety, such as benzodiazepines and alcohol, may be appealing to some.
In one groundbreaking study, investigators found that those who experienced eating disorders were as much as five times more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs than others. Also, more than one-third of those who misused drugs or alcohol experienced an eating disorder, compared to just 3% of the general population.
The self-medication aspect of both of these conditions, however, is probably the most fundamental to their relationship. People with eating disorders often suffer from the same underlying emotional issues as those who become addicted to drugs or alcohol.
For example, those who experience childhood trauma or neglect, or who have other psychiatric problems, such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, are more likely to engage in self-defeating behaviors. These include substance abuse and process addictions such as gambling, sex, or love addiction.
Many experts believe that eating disorders are very much like an addiction to drugs or behaviors. Therefore, it should not be surprising that a person with anorexia would also turn to substance abuse or other compulsive behaviors as a means to cope with adverse experiences and feelings.
Treatment for Anorexia Symptoms and Addiction
Eating disorders and substance use are two overlapping mental health disorders that can only be treated effectively in conjunction. Addressing addiction alone does nothing to resolve or manage the underlying issues that contribute to the eating disorder and vice versa.
Fortunately, Just Believe Recovery is well-equipped to treat all forms of mental illness in addition to substance abuse. We offer comprehensive, individualized treatment programs in both residential and partial hospitalization formats that feature evidence-based therapies and services, including, but not limited to, the following:
- Individual and family counseling
- 12-Step group support
- Nutritional support
- Substance abuse education
- Art, music, and adventure therapy
- Aftercare planning
- Alumni activities
If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder such as anorexia and addiction, please contact us today and find out how we can help!