A waterfall between rocks

What is Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia Nervosa is a type of eating disorder which most commonly starts in adolescence but can also start in childhood and adulthood. People with Anorexia Nervosa strive to maintain a low body weight by dieting, vomiting after eating, using laxatives and diuretics (water tablets) or exercising excessively.

Very often Anorexia Nervosa begins with seemingly harmless dieting. However unlike normal dieting which stops when the desired weight is reached, in Anorexia Nervosa the loss of weight continues until the sufferer is well below the normal limit for their age and height.

Central to the illness is an intense fear of becoming ‘fat’ and a need to exert extreme control over eating and body weight. This need gets stronger the more weight the person loses. People with Anorexia Nervosa may see their weight loss and control as a positive achievement which improves their self-esteem.

Another important feature of Anorexia Nervosa is distorted body image. People with Anorexia Nervosa often do not see themselves as others do and usually do not recognize that they are underweight.

As a consequence of these features, people with Anorexia Nervosa are often very reluctant to seek help for their eating problems.

Physical and Psychological Effects of Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa is a serious condition that can cause severe physical problems.  This is because of the effects of starvation and vomiting on the body. At its most severe, these effects can be life threatening. Anorexia Nervosa has the highest death rate of all psychological disorders.

Physical effects can include:

  • Loss of bone mass- causing an increased risk of fracture which increases the longer the person remains underweight
  • Osteoporosis
  • Loss of menstrual periods and fertility
  • Liver damage
  • Digestive problems and constipation
  • Tiredness, weakness and feeling cold- due to a slowed metabolism
  • Heart problems
  • Poor skin and hair condition
  • Stunted growth in children and adolescents

Psychological effects can include:

  • Poor sleep
  • Poor concentration
  • Rigid thinking – especially finding it difficult to see things from different points of view
  • Feeling depressed and anxious
  • Being preoccupied with thoughts about food and eating
  • Not wanting to spend time with friends and family

External resources

Self-help documents