Anorexia nervosa – Symptoms and causes


Anorexia nervosa is a serious eating disorder characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image. People with anorexia often strive to maintain an abnormally low body weight, leading to severe weight loss and various physical and psychological complications. This article aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the symptoms and causes of anorexia nervosa.

Understanding Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is a complex psychiatric disorder that primarily affects young individuals, especially adolescent girls and young women. It involves a relentless pursuit of thinness, accompanied by an extreme fear of gaining weight. Individuals with anorexia often have a distorted body image and perceive themselves as overweight, even when they are significantly underweight.

Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa

Physical Signs and Symptoms

  • Significant weight loss
  • Emaciated appearance
  • Abnormal blood counts
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Hair loss
  • Dry skin
  • Brittle nails
  • Sensitivity to cold temperatures

Psychological Signs and Symptoms

  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Distorted body image
  • Perfectionism
  • Obsession with food, calories, and dieting
  • Social withdrawal
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Anxiety and depression

Health Consequences

Anorexia nervosa can have severe health consequences that affect various systems of the body. Prolonged malnutrition can lead to:

  • Abnormal heart rhythms
  • Low blood pressure
  • Reduced bone density
  • Muscle loss
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Impaired gastrointestinal function
  • Hormonal disturbances

Causes of Anorexia Nervosa

The exact causes of anorexia nervosa are not fully understood, but it is believed to result from a combination of genetic, psychological, environmental, and social factors.

Biological Factors

Research suggests that genetics play a role in predisposing individuals to anorexia nervosa. Certain genes may contribute to a person’s susceptibility to developing the disorder, although genetic factors alone are not sufficient to cause anorexia.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors, such as societal pressures, cultural ideals of thinness, and media influences, can contribute to the development of anorexia nervosa. Additionally, traumatic life events, perfectionism, and a history of childhood abuse or neglect may also increase the risk.

Cultural and Social Factors

Societal emphasis on thinness and beauty, particularly in industries like fashion and entertainment, can create unrealistic body standards and contribute to the development of anorexia nervosa. Peer pressure and social comparisons also play a role, as individuals with anorexia often seek validation and acceptance through their weight and appearance.

Co-occurring Disorders

Anorexia nervosa often co-occurs with other mental health conditions, such as:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Substance abuse disorders
  • Self-harm behaviors

The presence of these co-occurring disorders can complicate the diagnosis and treatment of anorexia nervosa.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosing anorexia nervosa involves a comprehensive evaluation of physical symptoms, psychological factors, and eating behaviors. Treatment typically involves a multidisciplinary approach that includes medical, nutritional, and psychological interventions. Psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), is commonly used to address the underlying psychological factors contributing to the disorder.


Anorexia nervosa is a serious eating disorder characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image. It can have severe physical and psychological consequences if left untreated. Understanding the symptoms and causes of anorexia is crucial for early identification and intervention. If you or someone you know is struggling with anorexia, seeking professional help is essential for recovery.


Can anorexia nervosa affect males as well?

Yes, although anorexia nervosa is more commonly observed in females, males can also develop the disorder. The prevalence of anorexia among males is lower, but it should not be overlooked.

Is anorexia nervosa solely caused by societal pressures?

No, anorexia nervosa is a complex disorder influenced by a combination of genetic, psychological, environmental, and social factors. While societal pressures play a role, they are not the sole cause of the disorder.

Can anorexia nervosa be cured?

With early intervention and appropriate treatment, individuals with anorexia nervosa can recover and lead healthy lives. However, recovery is a gradual process that requires ongoing support and professional help.

Can anorexia nervosa be prevented?

While it may not be possible to prevent anorexia nervosa entirely, promoting a positive body image, providing education about healthy eating habits, and addressing societal pressures can contribute to prevention efforts.

How can I support a loved one with anorexia nervosa?

Supporting a loved one with anorexia nervosa involves providing emotional support, encouraging them to seek professional help, and educating yourself about the disorder. Avoid making comments about their appearance or weight, as this can be counterproductive.


  1. National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) – NEDA is a non-profit organization that offers comprehensive resources and support for individuals with eating disorders. Their website ( provides valuable information on anorexia nervosa, including symptoms, causes, treatment options, and recovery.
  2. Mayo Clinic – Mayo Clinic is a renowned medical organization known for its expertise in various health conditions. Their website ( features a dedicated section on anorexia nervosa, offering detailed information on symptoms, diagnosis, complications, and treatment approaches.
  3. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) – As a leading research institution, the NIMH provides authoritative information on mental health disorders. Their webpage on eating disorders ( includes insights into anorexia nervosa, including risk factors, prevalence, and ongoing research efforts.
  4. American Psychiatric Association (APA) – The APA is a professional association representing psychiatrists in the United States. Their website ( contains useful resources related to anorexia nervosa, including diagnostic criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and treatment guidelines.
  5. PubMed – PubMed is a widely-used database that provides access to a vast collection of scientific articles and studies. By searching for “anorexia nervosa” on PubMed (, you can access peer-reviewed research papers, clinical trials, and scholarly articles on various aspects of the disorder.

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