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Anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa: Symptoms

Anorexia is an eating disorder and a serious mental health condition.

People who have anorexia try to keep their weight as low as possible. They do this by not eating enough food or exercising too much, or both. This can make them very ill because they start to starve.

Men and women of any age can get anorexia, but it's most common in young women and usually starts in the mid-teens.

Signs and symptoms

The main symptom of anorexia is losing a lot of weight or keeping your body weight much lower than is healthy for your age and height.

Signs and symptoms include:

  • missing meals, eating very little or avoiding eating any foods you see as fattening
  • lying about what and when you've eaten, and how much you weigh
  • taking medication to reduce your hunger (appetite suppressants)
  • exercising excessively
  • making yourself sick
  • using medication to help you poo (laxatives) or to make you pee (diuretics) to try to avoid putting on weight
  • an overwhelming fear of gaining weight
  • strict rituals around eating
  • seeing losing a lot of weight as a positive thing
  • believing you are fat when you are a healthy weight or underweight
  • not admitting your weight loss is serious

You may also notice physical signs and symptoms such as:

  • if you're under 18, your weight and height being lower than expected for your age
  • if you're an adult, having an unusually low body mass index (BMI)
  • your periods stopping (in women who have not reached menopause)
  • your periods not starting (in younger women and girls)
  • bloating, constipation and abdominal pain
  • headaches or problems sleeping
  • feeling cold, dizzy or very tired
  • poor circulation in hands and feet
  • dry skin, hair loss from the scalp, or fine downy hair (lanugo) growing on the body
  • reduced sex drive

People with anorexia often have other mental health problems. For example, depression or anxiety.

Warning signs of anorexia in someone else

The following warning signs could show that someone else has an eating disorder:

  • dramatic weight loss
  • lying about how much and when they've eaten, or how much they weigh
  • avoiding eating with others
  • cutting their food into small pieces
  • eating very slowly to disguise how little they are eating
  • trying to hide how thin they are by wearing loose or baggy clothes
  • frequent weighing
  • increased consumption of fluids

Warning signs of anorexia in children

  • Growth spurt may be delayed in children with anorexia
  • Weight gain may be less than expected

Complications of anorexia

Anorexia can lead to severe health problems associated with malnutrition. But these will usually start to improve once your eating habits return to normal.

Possible complications include:

  • problems with muscles and bones – feeling tired and weak, osteoporosis, physical development
  • fertility problems
  • loss of sex drive
  • problems with the heart and blood vessels
  • problems with the brain and nerves – fits, difficulties with concentration and memory
  • kidney or bowel problems
  • having a weakened immune system or anaemia

Anorexia can also put your life at risk. It's one of the leading causes of deaths related to mental health problems. Deaths from anorexia may be due to physical complications or suicide. 

Causes of anorexia

It's not known what causes anorexia and other eating disorders. You may be more likely to get an eating disorder if:

  • you or a member of your family has a history of eating disorders, depression, or alcohol or drug addiction
  • you have been criticised for your eating habits, body shape or weight
  • you are very concerned about being slim
  • you have anxiety, low self-esteem, an obsessive personality or are a perfectionist
  • you have been sexually abused

Getting help

If you think you may have anorexia, even if you are not sure, see your GP as soon as you can.

If a family member or friend may have anorexia, let them know you're worried about them. Encourage them to see their GP. You could offer to go along with them.

Page last reviewed: 01/10/2018
Next review due: 01/10/2021

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