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Many people mistakenly believe that anorexia is a new disorder that developed recently due to societal pressures for thinness. Actually, anorexia is a disorder that has been around for a long time. A trip back in history reveals several examples of what we now know is anorexia. For instance, in Western Europe in 12th and 13th centuries, “miracle maidens” were women who starved themselves and were respected for their pious, religious behaviors. Catherine of Siena (1347 – 1380) was revered as a saint for her fasting behavior. In 1600s some individuals with what we would now regard as anorexic behaviors were viewed as witches and burned at the stake.

The first reported cases of what we now refer to as anorexia nervosa was described in 1689 by Richard Morton as “wasting” disease of nervous etiology in one male and one female. The first formal description of anorexia nervosa is credited to Sir William Gull, physician to Queen Victoria, who in 1868 named the disorder “anorexia hysterica.” Gull later changed “hysterica” to “nervosa” to avoid confusion with hysteria, another mental disorder diagnosed at the time.

The term anorexia is a misnomer. Anorexia is translated as “lack of appetite,” which is actually rare in individuals with anorexia. So, if anorexia is not absence of appetite or dieting gone awry, what is anorexia?

What is Anorexia?

Anorexia is characterized by weight loss or failure to gain weight appropriately (in children). Individuals with anorexia often demonstrate a distorted body image, in which they see themselves as larger than they really are. They often engage in restrictive behaviors, purging behaviors, and excessive exercise. When family and friends start to worry, clients with anorexia often try to hide their behaviors.

Anorexia is a serious mental illness with possible life-threatening outcomes. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. Half of the deaths in anorexia are due to complications related to the disorder and the other half is due to suicide. The majority of individuals with anorexia are female. However, the prevalence is increasing in males and the transgender population.

What Causes Anorexia?

Anorexia is the result of combination of factors. In the past families and society were blamed for causing eating disorders. As we have developed a better understanding of eating disorders, we now realize that eating disorders are biologically-based disorders. At Alsana, we adhere to a neurodevelopmental model of etiology for anorexia and other eating disorders. This model states that eating disorders develop as the result of a genetic and neurobiological predisposition triggered by dieting behavior. The eating disorder is then maintained based on the functions that it serves (e.g., emotion regulation, fear avoidance, neurobiological homeostasis). It is important for clients and families to understand the neurodevelopmental model of anorexia, because this model can help guide anorexia treatment.

Can People Recover from Anorexia?

In the past, the outcomes for anorexia were poor. Over the past decade, more research has been conducted, which shows that the majority of people who have anorexia can recover. Some recent studies show that some individuals who have had anorexia for more than 20 years are still able to achieve a full recovery. Recovery from anorexia is not only possible, it is probable. At Alsana, we believe clients and families need to hear this message of hope. A full and sustainable recovery from anorexia and other eating disorders is possible with the right treatment. We are here to help. Please call if you have more questions about What is Anorexia or about treatment options.

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