Anorexia Nervosa: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Anorexia nervosa (AN) is a serious eating disorder that affects millions of people worldwide. It is characterized by a persistent and intense fear of gaining weight, a distorted perception of body shape and weight, and a severe restriction of food intake that leads to a significantly low body weight.

People with Anorexia nervosa may also engage in binge eating, purging, or excessive exercise to control their weight. AN can have devastating consequences for physical and mental health, and can even be fatal if left untreated.

In this article, you will learn about the symptoms, causes, and treatment of Anorexia Nervosa, as well as some tips to prevent and cope with this condition. You will also find some resources and links to help you or someone you know who may be struggling with AN.

Anorexia Nervosa

Key Takeaways

  • Anorexia Nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by a persistent and intense fear of gaining weight, a distorted perception of body shape and weight, and a severe restriction of food intake that leads to a significantly low body weight.
  • AN can cause various physical and mental health complications, such as heart problems, bone loss, hormonal imbalance, depression, anxiety, or even death.
  • Anorexia Nervosa can be caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors, such as genetics, hormones, emotions, cognition, and environment.
  • AN can be treated with a comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach that includes medical care, nutritional counseling, psychological therapy, and support groups.

Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa

The symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa can vary from person to person, but they generally include:

  • Extreme weight loss or failure to gain weight as expected
  • Fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even when underweight
  • Distorted or negative body image, or denial of the seriousness of low weight
  • Obsession with food, calories, weight, and appearance
  • Restriction of food intake, or avoidance of certain foods or food groups
  • Binge eating and purging behaviors, such as vomiting, laxative use, or diuretic use
  • Excessive or compulsive exercise
  • Irregular or absent menstrual periods (in females)
  • Low blood pressure, slow heart rate, or abnormal heart rhythms
  • Anemia, low white blood cell count, or electrolyte imbalance
  • Dry skin, hair loss, brittle nails, or lanugo (fine, soft hair on the body)
  • Cold intolerance, low body temperature, or poor circulation
  • Osteoporosis, bone fractures, or muscle weakness
  • Fatigue, insomnia, dizziness, or fainting
  • Depression, anxiety, irritability, or mood swings
  • Social disengagement, loneliness, or disinterest in routine activities
  • Difficulty concentrating, thinking, or making decisions

Physical Manifestations

Witnessing anorexia's impact unfolds through various physical signs and symptoms:

  • Unprecedented weight loss or stalled developmental weight gains
  • A frail physique projecting a diminished presence
  • Aberrant blood counts revealing the body's silent distress
  • Persistent fatigue, an unwelcome companion
  • Sleeplessness, making rest an elusive pursuit
  • Episodes of dizziness or, at times, perilous fainting spells
  • Fingers tinged with a bluish hue, an unsettling chromatic alteration
  • Tresses that undergo thinning, breakage, or a disheartening loss
  • A downy veil of soft hair enveloping the body's surface
  • The unsettling absence of menstrual cycles, a conspicuous absence
  • Gastrointestinal disturbances like constipation and abdominal pain
  • Skin devoid of vitality, donning a parched or yellowish complexion
  • An aversion to the cold, an intolerance that permeates
  • Cardiac irregularities, disrupt the harmonious rhythm within
  • Suboptimal blood pressure, reflecting the body's silent rebellion
  • Dehydration, an insidious consequence of self-imposed deprivation
  • Swelling in extremities, an outward manifestation of internal turmoil
  • Teeth with erosion scars, knuckles covered in calluses from forced purging

Anorexia and Binge-Purge Cycles: Unraveling the Distinct Characteristics

It's noteworthy that some afflicted by anorexia may engage in binge-purge cycles akin to bulimia, yet the prevailing characteristic remains an unnaturally low body weight, distinguishing them from their bulimic counterparts who often maintain normal to above-normal weights.

Causes of Anorexia Nervosa

The exact causes of AN are not fully understood, but they are likely to involve a complex interaction of biological, psychological, and environmental factors.

Some of the possible factors are:


Some people may have a genetic predisposition to AN, especially if they have a family history of eating disorders or other mental health conditions.


Hormonal imbalances, such as low levels of estrogen or thyroid hormones, may affect appetite, metabolism, and mood, and increase the risk of developing AN.


AN may be a way of coping with negative emotions, such as stress, trauma, anger, sadness, loneliness, or guilt.

People with AN may have difficulty expressing and regulating their emotions, and may use food as a source of comfort, control, or punishment.


AN may be influenced by distorted thoughts and beliefs about food, weight, and shape, such as “I must be thin to be happy”, “I am a failure if I eat too much”, or “I can’t stop eating once I start”.

These thoughts may trigger or reinforce AN behaviors and create a vicious cycle of self-criticism and low self-esteem.


AN may be affected by external factors, such as the availability and accessibility of food, social pressure, cultural norms, media messages, or traumatic events.

These factors may increase one’s exposure to food cues, expectations, or stressors, and may influence one’s eating habits and attitudes.

Treatment of Anorexia Nervosa

AN is a treatable condition, but it requires a comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach that addresses the physical, psychological, and social aspects of the disorder.

The main goals of treatment are to restore a healthy weight, normalize eating patterns, correct nutritional deficiencies, improve physical and mental health, and prevent relapse. Some of the possible treatment options are: 67

Medical care

Medical care is essential to monitor and manage the physical complications of AN, such as dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, heart problems, or organ failure.

Medical care may also involve the use of medication, such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, or appetite stimulants, to treat underlying or co-occurring mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Nutritional counseling

Nutritional counseling is a form of education and guidance that aims to help restore a balanced and adequate diet and to normalize eating patterns and behaviors.

A registered dietitian can provide nutritional counseling and tailor a meal plan according to one’s individual needs and preferences.

Nutritional counseling may also involve the use of supplements, such as vitamins, minerals, or electrolytes, to correct nutritional deficiencies and support health.

Psychological therapy

Psychological therapy is a form of counseling that aims to help understand and change the underlying causes and consequences of AN, and to develop healthier coping skills, self-image, and emotional regulation.

There are different types of psychological therapy for AN, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), interpersonal therapy (IPT), family-based therapy (FBT), or focal psychodynamic therapy (FPT).

Psychological therapy may be delivered individually, in groups, or with family members or carers, depending on the needs and preferences of the person with AN.

Support groups

Support groups are a form of peer support that aims to provide a safe and supportive environment for people who share similar experiences and challenges with Anorexia Nervosa.

Support groups can reduce isolation, increase insight and perspective, and receive encouragement and feedback from others. Support groups can be either online or in-person, and can be led by a professional or a peer.

Warning signs of bulimia nervosa


Anorexia Nervosa is a serious and complex eating disorder that can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, or background. It can have devastating effects on physical and mental health and can interfere with one’s daily functioning and well-being.

However, Anorexia Nervosa is not a sign of weakness or a personal flaw, but rather a coping mechanism that can be changed with proper help and support. If you or someone you know is struggling with AN, do not hesitate to reach out for help.

Many resources and professionals are available to help you overcome this condition and regain your health and happiness.

Samir Sali

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