What is Anorexia Nervosa?

19 April 2011

Anorexia nervosa is an emotional disorder characterized by severe and potentially life-threatening weight loss through self-induced reduction in total food intake. More than 90% of reported cases occur in women in industrialized countries where cultural expectations encourage women to maintain an extremely thin body, and fashion designers create clothes that look best on thin women.

Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa include:

  • Refusal to maintain minimum body weight for age and height
  • Distorted perception of personal body shape and/or size
  • Denial of seriousness of low body weight
  • Amenorrhea
  • Ritualised eating behaviours
  • Monotonous food choices
  • Significant pre-occupation with food
  • Vegetarianism

Potential events and risk factors that increase the risks of Anorexia Nervosa Include:

  • Severe trauma or emotional stress (such as the death of a loved one or sexual abuse) during puberty or pre puberty. (PTSD)
  • Abnormalities in brain chemistry: Changes in serotonin levels, a brain chemical that regulates appetite, may contribute to other symptoms of anorexia nervosa such as depression, impulsiveness, obsessive behaviours, or other mood disorders. In addition, the process of purging may deplete tryptophan, an amino acid necessary for the production of serotonin, leading to further imbalances.
  • Overbearing, controlling, and critical parents who do not show emotional warmth.
  • A tendency toward perfectionism, fear of being ridiculed or humiliated, a desire to always be perceived as being “good.”
  • Family history of anorexia: About one-fifth of those with anorexia have a relative with an eating disorder.
  • Age and gender—anorexia is most common in teens and young adult women
  • Early onset of puberty
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or other anxiety disorders—OCD is present in up to two-thirds of people with anorexia.

Several social and personal beliefs and practices perpetuate the persistence of the disease, including friends who envy the thinness of the patient with an eating disorder; dance instructors, athletic coaches, and others in professions where thinness is desirable who encourage very low body fat; denial on the part of parents or other family members; and the patient’s belief that his/her emaciation is not only normal but attractive, and/or that purging is the only way to avoid becoming obese.

So what can natural therapies do for people with Anorexia Nervosa? As a naturopathour aim is to always treat the person and not the disease, therefore unlike medical management of the condition a naturopath will try to find the underlying pathology or triggering event and treat that instead. This may mean counselling for those where the onset can be linked to a traumatic event, helping in the management of stress and anxiety, treating underlying nutritional deficiencies that may be impacting on symptoms and behaviours, looking for biochemical changes in brain chemistry like serotonin deficiencies, cortisol excess, and changes in dopamine and balancing any imbalances, as well as educating on what a healthy diet is. As a naturopath we try to take the focus off food management as much as possible and shift the awareness to feeling good on the inside which often leads to clients improving their nutritional and dietary habits of their own accord.

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