What Is Anorexia Nervosa and How Can I Get Help for It?

By Lauren Krouse

Anorexia (also called anorexia nervosa) is an eating disorder strongly linked to genetics, as well as changes in your brain, mental health, metabolism, and body. When you are struggling with anorexia, you severely limit how many calories you eat, depriving your body of the energy and nutrients you need. You may also feel an intense fear of gaining weight or getting fat.

Anorexia and its impact on the body and mind can lead to a cascade of dramatic changes in how you see yourself and feel about eating. What you see in the mirror may be very different from what others see, and a lot of people with anorexia tie their self-worth to their body size or weight. 

When you’re living with anorexia, it can be really hard to see you need help. It’s also possible for someone with anorexia to switch between periods of barely eating and eating very large amounts and forcing themselves to throw up, exercise, or misuse medications like laxatives to make up for it. 

Myths about anorexia being a lifestyle or phase are incredibly dangerous and wrong. Anorexia is not a choice. It’s a serious medical condition that can be life-threatening. It’s important to take any and all signs of anorexia very seriously and get professional support and treatment as soon as possible. Here’s what you need to know and how to get help.

Who Can Get Anorexia?

There’s a stereotype that people with anorexia have a “look,” and that most people who experience it are young, white, upper-middle-class females. The reality is that anorexia can and does affect people of all genders, races, ages, ethnicities, sexualities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Contrary to the stereotype, many people with anorexia are not underweight and do not lose weight. Anorexia often starts during adolescence, but younger children and older adults can also develop it. If left untreated, anorexia commonly persists throughout adulthood.

Athletes face a higher risk of anorexia than the rest of the population, and it’s not only in sports and activities that focus on body shape and size, such as dance, gymnastics, and wrestling. Sports that put an emphasis on endurance—such as swimming, and cross-country—can also be a risk factor for anorexia.

What Causes Anorexia?

It’s not clear what exactly causes anorexia, but it may be triggered by a complex relationship between your background and the world you live in. Common risk factors for anorexia include: 

  • Genetics. Specific genes (characteristics passed down from your parents) can lead to a 50 percent to 74 percent higher risk of developing anorexia.
  • Family history, such as having a parent or sibling with anorexia.
  • Dieting.
  • Imbalances in brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine, which can cause extreme anxiety around eating and the drive to not eat.
  • Personality traits such as perfectionism and risk aversion—holding yourself to relentlessly high standards and making decisions based on fear.
  • Feeling unsatisfied with your body image and struggling with the beliefs society pushes on us, such as the myth that thin equals healthy.
  • Facing weight stigma, such as being bullied, teased, and judged because of your weight.

What Are the Signs of Anorexia?

In a society that idealizes thinness and discipline around food, it can be hard to know if someone is struggling with anorexia. You can’t tell if someone has anorexia just by the way they look, since appearing thin is not a reliable red flag. Someone can be in any size body but be malnourished and suffering from anorexia. That’s why it’s important to understand the range of warning signs and symptoms.

  • Weight loss.
  • An intense fear of gaining weight.
  • Frequent and increasingly restrictive dieting.
  • Skipping meals or taking only small portions of food.
  • Anxiety around food.
  • Warped body image (seeing yourself as larger than you are or denying the seriousness of weight loss).
  • Excessive focus on weight, food, healthy or “clean” eating, calories, fat, or carbs.
  • Tying your self-worth to a certain body weight or size.
  • Dressing in layers or baggy clothes to hide weight loss or stay warm.
  • Feeling compelled to exercise daily or multiple times per day, feeling agitated when you can’t exercise, or exercising even if there’s bad weather or you’re injured or sick.
  • Pulling away from friends, family, and activities you usually enjoy.
  • Irritability or low mood.
  • Thoughts or comments about self-injury or suicide.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people with anorexia. If you or someone you know needs help right now: 

  • Text HEALING to 741-741 for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor any time of day. 
  • Text or call 988 or use the chat function at 988lifeline.org
  • If this is a medical emergency or there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis. 

What Does Anorexia Do to Your Body?

Anorexia is really hard on your emotional health, but it also takes a serious toll on your body. Common physical symptoms include:

  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Feeling dizzy or fainting, especially when you stand up.
  • Gastrointestinal problems such as stomach cramps, nausea, or acid reflux.
  • Constantly feeling cold.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • For those who menstruate, irregular periods or no period, including having a period only while on birth control.
  • Dental problems such as cavities, sensitive teeth, or the wearing away of enamel.
  • Dry skin, brittle nails, and thinning hair.
  • Fine, downy body hair, which is the body’s attempt to stay warm.
  • Muscle loss and weakness.
  • Broken bones, including stress fractures.

Starving the body of the nutrients it needs can hurt all your organs—including your heart—and can lead to sudden cardiac arrest and death, even when someone looks or seems like they aren’t that sick. That’s why it’s important to take any and all signs of anorexia seriously and get help as soon as possible. 

How to Get Help for Anorexia

Anorexia is treatable. If you’re concerned for yourself or a loved one, eating disorder professionals can help assess your symptoms and develop a treatment plan to help you heal from both the mental and physical effects of anorexia. It’s never too early or too late to get the support you need and deserve.  

Learn how you can ask for help with an eating disorder

To get support and resources for yourself or a loved one who may be struggling with anorexia,  contact the National Alliance for Eating Disorders helpline, which is run by licensed therapists who specialize in eating disorders.

  • Call 866-662-1235 or email info@allianceforeatingdisorders.com to get referrals to all levels of care. The helpline is open from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. EST Monday through Friday. If help is not immediately available, your call will be returned as soon as possible.

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.