Anorexia: Survival of the Thinnest

The covers of glossy fashion magazines often promote beautiful people with gleaming smiles, perfect hair and thin bodies. However, a lean and healthy body is different than one that is starved to be skinny.

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that causes people to starve themselves or exercise excessively in the constant pursuit of thinness. Though it is described as an eating disorder, anorexia is more about emotional problems than food itself.

People who become anorexic often equate their own self-worth with their perceived thinness. No matter how much weight they lose, a distorted view of their own bodies makes them think that they need to lose more.

While anorexia can affect both men and women, it most commonly occurs in teenage girls and young women. This condition may be exacerbated by social pressures to look a certain way or by changes occurring during puberty.

According to the Mayo Clinic, genetic factors may also play a role in anorexia. Researchers have found chromosomal changes that may be linked to an increased likelihood of anorexia in some people. Women who have a close relative with anorexia are also at greater risk for developing the disorder.

Physical symptoms of anorexia include more than simply being extremely thin. Additional symptoms include fatigue, insomnia, dizziness or fainting, brittle nails, thin hair, low blood pressure, abnormal blood counts, irregular heartbeat and the absence of menstruation. Emotionally, people with anorexia often show symptoms such as depression, irritability and social withdrawal.

Anorexia is a serious disorder that can become fatal. It can lead to heart problems, including mitral valve prolapse, abnormal rhythms and heart failure. Electrolyte imbalances due to a lack of necessary nutritional elements can cause life-threatening problems. A wide range of complications can affect kidney or gastrointestinal function and also lead to bone loss.

Treatment of anorexia includes both medical intervention and psychotherapy. The first goals are to regain a healthy weight and treat any life-threatening complications. The biggest challenge to treatment is often the patient's unwillingness to change her unhealthy lifestyle. Many people with anorexia do not recognize that they have a problem, even when their health is threatened.

A supportive environment is an important element of recovery. Through a combination of therapy and medical treatment, people with anorexia can overcome this dangerous eating disorder. In time, they can regain a healthy body weight and learn to have a healthy body image.

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