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Anorexia nervosa, or anorexia, is a type of eating disorder that mainly affects adolescent girls and young women. A person with this disease has an intense fear of gaining weight and limits the food she eats. She:
- Has a low body weight
- Refuses to keep a normal body weight
- Is extremely afraid of becoming fat
- Believes she is fat even when she's very thin
- Misses three (menstrual) periods in a row (for girls/women who have started having their periods)
Anorexia affects your health because it can damage many parts of your body. A person with anorexia will have many of these signs:
- Loses a lot of weight
- Talks about weight and food all the time
- Moves food around the plate; doesn't eat it
- Weighs food and counts calories
- Follows a strict diet
- Fears gaining weight
- Won't eat in front of others
- Ignores/denies hunger
- Uses extreme measures to lose weight (self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse, diuretic abuse, diet pills, fasting, excessive exercise)
- Thinks she's fat when she's too thin
- Gets sick a lot
- Weighs self several times a day
- Acts moody
- Feels depressed
- Feels irritable
- Doesn't socialize
- Wears baggy clothes to hide appearance
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The good news is that people with this disease can get better. The treatment depends on what the person needs, but the person must get back to a healthy weight.
A health care team of doctors, nutritionists, and therapists will help the patient get better. They will:
- Help bring the person back to a normal weight
- Treat any psychological issues related to anorexia
- Help the person get rid of any actions or thoughts that cause the eating disorder
These three steps will prevent "relapse" (relapse means to get sick again, after feeling well for a while).
Some research suggests that the use of medicines — such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, or mood stabilizers — may sometimes work for anorexic patients. It is thought that these medicines help the mood and anxiety symptoms that often co-exist with anorexia. Other recent studies, however, suggest that antidepressants may not stop some patients with anorexia from relapsing. Also, no medicine has shown to work 100 percent of the time during the important first step of restoring a patient to healthy weight. So, it is not clear if and how medications can help anorexic patients get better, but research is still happening.
Some forms of psychotherapy can help make the psychological reasons for anorexia better. Psychotherapy is sometimes known as "talk therapy." It uses different ways of communicating to change a patient's thoughts or behavior. This kind of therapy can be useful for treating eating disorders in young patients who have not had anorexia for a long time.
Individual counseling can help someone with anorexia. If the patient is young, counseling may involve the whole family. Support groups may also be a part of treatment. In support groups, patients, and families meet and share what they've been through.
Some researchers point out that prescribing medicines and using psychotherapy designed just for anorexic patients works better at treating anorexia than just psychotherapy alone. Whether or not a treatment works, though, depends on the person involved and his or her situation. Unfortunately, no one kind of psychotherapy always works for treating adults with anorexia.
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More information on Anorexia nervosa
Read more from womenshealth.gov
- Anorexia Nervosa Fact Sheet - This fact sheet explains anorexia's causes, signs and symptoms, and its effects on the body. It also provides information for pregnant women who have or have had anorexia.
Explore other publications and websites
- A Brief Overview of Therapies Used in the Treatment of Eating Disorders (Copyright © National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders) - Psychotherapy can be an effective way of treating eating disorders. This fact sheet provides an overview of each type of psychotherapy commonly used in the treatment of anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders.
- ANAD Eating Disorder Support Groups (Copyright © ANAD) - If you have an eating disorder, this web page will help you locate a support group in your area.
- Anorexia Nervosa (Copyright © Helpguide.org) - This fact sheet describes the signs, symptoms, causes, effects, and treatment for the eating disorder anorexia nervosa.
- Anorexia Nervosa (Copyright © Mayo Foundation) - This publication provides information about anorexia nervosa, including risk factors, symptoms, treatment, coping skills, and self-help.
- Anorexia Nervosa (Copyright © National Alliance on Mental Illness) - This fact sheet discusses anorexia nervosa. It includes the symptoms, prevalence, causes, treatment options and other important information.
- Anorexia Nervosa (Copyright © National Eating Disorders Association) - This fact sheet describes the primary symptoms as well as the warning signs of anorexia nervosa. It lists health consequences and statistics about anorexia nervosa.
- Eating Disorders - This detailed booklet describes symptoms, causes, and treatments of eating disorders. It also includes information on getting help and coping.
- Eating Disorders & Pregnancy: Some Facts About the Risks (Copyright © National Eating Disorder Association) - This publication discusses the risks of having an eating disorder during pregnancy, including an explanation of how it can affect both the baby and the mother. It also provides information on what to do if you become pregnant while already struggling with an eating disorder.
- How to Afford Appropriate Treatment for an Eating Disorder: A Guide for Patients & Their Families (Copyright © National Eating Disorder Association) - This publication provides detailed information about health insurance, where to find help for eating disorders, and where to get financial assistance for treatment.
- What People With Anorexia Nervosa Need to Know About Osteoporosis - Anorexia nervosa has significant physical consequences. Affected individuals can experience nutritional and hormonal problems that negatively impact bone density. This fact sheet discusses osteoporosis management strategies in individuals who have anorexia.
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Content last updated: March 29, 2010.
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