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Anorexia nervosa

a woman looking at herself in the mirror and seeing a distorted image

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.

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Content last updated: March 29, 2010.

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