Anorexia Nervosa: Causes, Symptoms & 5 Natural Treatments
At least 30 million people in the United States are suffering from an eating disorder. What makes it more alarming is the fact that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate among all other types of mental illnesses.
The root of eating disorders does not only lie in the mind, where there is a desire to lose excessive weight. Another cause can be found deep in the brain and in the gut. Moreover, the cure is actually in our own hands.
Let’s focus on one of the most popular eating disorders in the world: anorexia nervosa. We will discuss some facts and ways we can treat it naturally.
What is Anorexia Nervosa?
Anorexia nervosa is a life-threatening eating disorder in which the person affected is in constant fear of gaining weight. Due to their abnormal perception of an ideal body shape and weight, they perform all sorts of dietary habits that restrict calorie intake and prevent weight gain.
The eating disorder generally affects teenage or young women, and the causes may vary from peer pressure among friends or colleagues to look thin, the presence of thin role models in the media, that may reinforce the belief that we must look thin, in order to be perceived as good looking, or to be accepted by others. Moreover, family and childhood traumas and the need for control can also lead to eating disorders.
The diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (2013), are the following:
● Restriction of energy intake, leading to a significantly low body weight in the context of age, sex, developmental trajectory, and physical health; significantly low weight is defined as, bodyweight that is less, than minimally normal or, for children and adolescents, less than that minimally expected;
● Intense fear of gaining weight or of becoming fat, or persistent behavior that interferes with weight gain, even though the patient’s weight is already significantly low; and
● Disturbance in the way one’s body weight or shape is experienced, undue influence of body weight or shape on self-evaluation, or persistent lack of recognition of the seriousness of the current low body weight.
It is not easy to identify someone suffering from anorexia nervosa, as this disorder affects a person physically, mentally, and emotionally, and requires a thorough evaluation.
Basic tests doctors often use to diagnose anorexia nervosa include the following:
● Physical and mental status evaluation
● Complete blood count (CBC)
● Metabolic panel
● Pregnancy test (in females of childbearing age)
Anorexia Nervosa Statistics
How much is anorexia nervosa affecting women and men? Let’s take a look at the numbers.
● 0.9% of American women suffer from anorexia nervosa in their lifetime
● The Standardized Mortality Ratio (SMR) or the observed number of deaths over expected deaths for anorexia nervosa is 5.86
● 50-80% of the risk of anorexia and also bulimia (food binging followed by purging) is genetic
● 33-50% of anorexia patients have a comorbid mood disorder, such as depression.
● Half of the patients have comorbid anxiety disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and social phobia.
● Anorexia nervosa is more common among women than in men, with a female-to-male ratio of 10-20:1 in developed countries.
● 85% of patients have an onset of the disorder between the ages of 13 and 18 years.
● Certain groups are at risk for anorexia nervosa: dancers, long-distance runners, skaters, models, actors, wrestlers, gymnasts, flight attendants, college sorority members, and others for whom thinness is often emphasized and rewarded.
Anorexia Nervosa Causes
People who develop anorexia nervosa during puberty often struggle with a form of anxiety disorder. It is theorized that anorexia nervosa gives the affected adolescents the short-term satisfaction of having that sense of autonomy and selfhood.
We often blame print and television ads for reinforcing the belief that being slender is beautiful, however, more studies are required to prove the relation of this perception to anorexia nervosa.
Here are some of the risk factors for anorexia nervosa:
● Family history of eating disorders
● Perfectionistic personality
● Difficulty in communicating negative emotions
● Difficulty resolving conflict
● Low self-esteem
● Maternal encouragement of weight loss
● Genetic contribution as high as 50-80%
● Immunologic and hormonal factors, such as, leptin (the feeling of disgust when eating too much) and alpha-melanocyte (stimulating hormone), which may play a role in the maintenance of the disorder
● Identity conflicts
● Fear of becoming fat due to peer pressure
● Associated diseases like congenital adrenal hyperplasia and systemic lupus erythematosus.
Anorexia Nervosa Symptoms and Signs
The significant changes found among patients suffering from anorexia nervosa include the following:
● Low self-esteem
● Dry skin
● Exercise obsession
● Terrified of gaining weight
● Shrinking of the breasts
● Thinning hair
● Drug abuse
● Swollen legs
● Dizziness and fainting
● Brittle hair and nails
● Withdrawal from social situations and activities
● Not admitting the problem
● Denial of hunger
● Terrified of gaining weight
● Sleeping difficulties
● Inability to stop thinking about perceived defects and flaws in appearance (body dysmorphic disorder)
Medical Complications of Anorexia Nervosa
Medical complications are the top causes of death among the patients with anorexia nervosa. The body’s constant weight loss and malnutrition affect all the major organ systems of the body, which makes eating disorders life-threatening.
Here are some of the medical complications reported in studies:
● Elevated cortisol levels
● Reduction in fertility
● Loss of brain volume
● Loss of muscle mass
● Low blood glucose
● Low parathyroid hormone levels
● Elevated liver function
● Low white blood cell count
● Swollen salivary glands
● Yellow pigmentation of the skin and increase beta-carotene levels in the blood
● The growth of soft, downy, unpigmented hair all over the body (lanugo body hair)
● Bluish to purple discoloration of the hands and feet due to poor circulation (acrocyanosis)
● Low blood pressure (hypotension)
● Slow heart rate (bradycardia)
● Body loses heat faster than it can produce heat (hypothermia)
7 Natural Anorexia Nervosa Treatment Methods
If you or a loved one is suffering from anorexia, the most effective treatments for the person concerned is support and increasing self-worth.
You can use the following natural treatments for anorexia nervosa:
● Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT aims to help normalize eating patterns and behaviors to support weight gain, and helps change distorted beliefs and thoughts about one’s appearance.
CBT is the most recommended type of therapy, which focuses on the core of the disorder: the mind. It is considered more effective, in comparison to other therapies that focus more on nutritional education. Moreover, CBT, also encourages the involvement of parents and loved ones.
● Consult a dietician or a nutritionist
A person with anorexia lacks the required nutrition and energy from food. A dietician and/or a nutritionist can help create dietary plans based on the patient’s health status.
Therapy is essential to make sure the patient follows the diet plan as he/she may not be willing to eat the recommended food.
● Get support from family and friends
It is very important that parents, friends, and partners are involved during therapy, and are fully informed on what the patient should eat and how to handle his/her emotional fluctuations. It is often easier for close relatives and family to assist the patient in rebuilding his/her trust and self-esteem, which can help him/her become more confident in social situations.
● Join a Support Group
A person with a problem is best understood by people who are or have been in the same situation. Finding people who can relate and support each other is possible through support groups. To learn more about this, you can contact your local health care provider.
● Do mind and body exercises
Remember that eating disorders are most likely developed, due to an existing mental illness, such as anxiety. Mind and body exercises, such as: tai chi, yoga, and meditation, can enable one to focus on the present, to calm the mind, and be at peace with himself or herself.
Most of the time, these eating disorders are caused by being self-critical. Mind and body exercises teach one self-compassion, self-acceptance, and self-love, which may be used to overcome self-criticism.
● Keep the gut happy
The gut plays a major role in keeping the mind confident and happy. 40–60% of patients with functional gastrointestinal disorders experience psychiatric symptoms. Moreover, studies show that an altered gut-brain communication is present in eating disorders.
Gut microbes are required for normal brain function. So when one is experiencing imbalances in the gut, he/she can experience impaired cognition and other psychobehavioral abnormalities.
The disorder worsens when one is not consuming the right type of foods and amounts to keep the gut nourished with good bacteria.
To treat or prevent mental illnesses and eating disorders, start feeding yourself with gut-healing foods such as steamed vegetables and fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut. It is best to avoid grains, refined sugar, gluten, alcohol, and any other processed foods.
● Reduce stress levels
I always emphasize on the importance of self-care and listening to our body and mind to understand what it is trying to tell us. Stress can influence our mental health, as well as our eating behavior. Therefore, it is very important to focus on relaxing exercises, such as yoga, deep breathing, meditation, mindfulness etc.
Take Care of Yourself and Your Loved Ones
Anorexia nervosa is not just about feeling the need to lose weight. It is a major eating disorder that requires immediate attention, since it can develop further imbalances within the body and mind. When you are feeling insecure about your appearances, or the need to constantly be in control of your meals, then please do not be embarrassed to ask for help. Be honest, and know that there are people, professionals, and loved ones, who can help you get through this.
If you know someone who may have anorexia or any other eating disorder, offer support by making yourself available to talk to your loved one. Listen well and be patient with your loved one, through this long process of recovery.