Video: What are the causes of anorexia?

Whether it's you, a family member or a close friend who's suffering from anorexia, there are always going to be a lot of questions around this complex condition. Our experts take a look at some of the main ones.

What are the causes of anorexia?

Dr Sarah Jarvis

Anorexia has been around for a long time, but in many respects it is a modern disease. I don’t think there is any doubt that social media plays a huge part. Whatever we look we see pictures of beautiful perfect slim air-brushed women and to an extent men. But anorexia is about much, much more than eating. It’s about control, or lack of control. So, for instance, if you are a perfectionist and you set yourself impossibly high targets, you may find that controlling your eating is one way that you can feel in control of your life, when the rest of it feels out of control.

We know that certain jobs, certain hobbies and certain professions make you more likely to have anorexia, if the focus is all about weight. Among men it might be jockeys and among women it might be ballet dancers or models.

We think that there may be a genetic element. In other words, anorexia sometimes runs in families. But we do know that by improving self-esteem and addressing the underlying psychological issues that go with anorexia, we can deal with it - whatever the cause.

Is anorexia dangerous?

Dr Sarah Jarvis

Anorexia can be dangerous, In fact, it can be fatal! People with anorexia often don’t see themselves as being thin. They may think that they are horribly overweight, while what you are seeing is skin and bone. They may also want to get better but that urge to be in control of what they are eating and starve themselves to do it, can be so deep-seated that they just can’t get over it. So, yes, people with anorexia can literally starve themselves to death, if they don’t get the right help.

If you don’t have enough food in your system, and you are starving, you can end up with imbalances in your body salts, your electrolytes. Things like potassium, where problems with too high or too low levels can lead to abnormal heart rhythms or to muscle spasms or all sorts of physical issues.

What we do know is that the best chance of preventing anorexia from having a deadly outcome is getting the right help at the right time.

Can men have anorexia?

Dr Sarah Jarvis

Men can absolutely have anorexia. Anorexia is an eating disorder and it has no respect for gender, age or ethnicity.

Although traditionally anorexia is seen as being a condition that affects teenage girls, men can get it. Probably upto 1 in 10 people with anorexia is male, and of course it can strike at any age. So if you suspect someone you know has anorexia, maybe they are lying about what they are eating, hiding their shape under baggy clothes, becoming obsessed by weighing themselves and seem to think that they are really overweight when in fact they are really underweight.

Please don’t assume that there must be something else, just because they are a man.

Can anorexia give you diarrhoea?

Dr Sarah Jarvis

Anorexia can cause diarrhoea, but it can also give you constipation, bloating and vomiting. You might assume that if you are eating very little that you won’t have much fibre going through your body and you wont have much food going through your system, and therefore you should be constipated. But, if your body goes into starvation mode, your stomach may not empty properly.

You may not be getting vitamin and minerals that you need. So you may be suffering from malabsorption and, of course, many people with anorexia would use laxatives as well, to help them get rid of the few calories they do take in!

How do you help someone with an eating disorder?

Dr Sarah Jarvis

Trying to help someone with an eating disorder can be incredibly frustrating because what you might see is that they are just not trying to help themselves.

Maybe they are bingeing and purging all the time. Why can’t they just stop? Maybe they are not eating and they have anorexia. Why can’t they just start? But please try to remember that eating disorders are not just the physical problem. They are an emotional, psychological, medical condition.

Someone who has an eating disorder is going to be in complete psychological turmoil. They feel a huge compulsion to do what they do, whether it is to starve themselves or to purge or to binge. So please, try to be patient. Wait for them to come to you but let them know that you are there to support. Don’t focus too much on food - start thinking about things where you can connect, that aren’t food-related. But make sure that they know that you are there for them.

How do you treat eating disorders?

Dr Sarah Jarvis

Make no mistake, eating disorders - particularly anorexia - can kill. So treatment is partly by keeping somebody safe and partly about addressing the physical and the emotional problems that lie at the root of eating disorders.

If you have somebody who is underweight, you have to try to help them to regain and stay at a healthy weight. If you have somebody who is bingeing or purging, you're going to try to help them to stop that behaviour. But to do that, you need to look at the underlying problems - the emotional turmoil that’s causing that behaviour. That means they don’t feel that they have any choice but to behave in that way.

So treatment is usually a combination of supportive, sometimes physical, treatment and counselling. Sometimes with tablets as well. A multi-disciplinary team where everybody is working together in the same direction gives someone with an eating disorder a much better chance of a full recovery.

How long does anorexia last?

Dr Sarah Jarvis

How long does anorexia last? As long as a piece of string - that’s not a sick joke of any sort. The simple fact of the matter is, someone who seems to have fairly mild anorexia can have a deep-seated psychological problem that can last a very long time. But, on the whole, someone who has relatively mild symptoms may be back to their normal weight within a year or two, although the psychological problems that triggered it in the first place can take longer.

The people with really severe anorexia though, may stay underweight and would be at risk of losing more weight for a very long time. And the mental issues that cause them to have anorexia in the first place can last a lifetime.

But one thing is certain. The sooner you get professional help, the more likely it is you are going to make quick and full recovery.

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