What is anorexia nervosa and how is it treated?

ANOREXIA nervosa is an eating disorder that has profound physical effects on an individual’s health.

The fact that many people might not be aware of is that this condition is actually caused by psychological factors that affect an individual’s mental health. In fact, it is the psychological factors that lead to the biological or physical symptoms.

Though, the environmental factors i.e. the society an individual lives in, also play a major part in developing the condition, especially in teenagers aged 15 to 19. At university, most first-years and some second-years come under this age range. The studies show that young females are more prone to develop an eating disorder compared to males.

However, a recent study performed by King’s College London in collaboration with UCL Institute of Child Health shows that more males are now also developing eating disorders. The study shows that overall there has been a 15% increase in eating disorders since 2000, but for males particularly the increase has been 27%.

To put everything in actual numbers, the study came out with these statistics: 4,610 girls aged 15 to 19 and 336 boys aged 15 to 19 develop an eating disorder in the UK every year.

The figures above are shocking. They make us question why, in a developed country like the UK, people are suffering from eating disorders such as anorexia. Why are young people starving themselves?

This brings us back to the earlier point about environment playing a key role. Unfortunately in our society, there is this concept of ideal bodily physiques for both males and females which emphasises that being thin is beautiful. Western media constantly portrays this. There are advertisements for ways to lose weight in order to look slim and smart. All this leads young people to question their own physique and resort to extreme measures just so they can fit in with the society’s standards of beauty.

Now, let’s get to the science behind it and see what takes place in the brain to initiate this condition. Once a person starts to starve themselves, the brain does not receive the essential amount of nutrients it needs, which leads to the disruption in the balance of hormones in the body.

This in turn has an adverse effect on brain functions. This causes the brain to become sensitive to an amino acid called tryptophan which is found in nearly all food types. This then causes the feelings of anxiety in anorexic people. This is where starving comes in. Starving lowers the levels of tryptophan in the body, which makes the person feel more relaxed.

Scientists believe anorexia messes up the ‘appetite-reward pathway’ in brain. This means that an anorexic person does not feel satisfied after eating, but instead gets anxious. On the other hand, starving makes them feel relaxed.

So is there a way of treating anorexia? The best thing is to go to the GP. Usually, they will refer the patient to a psychiatrist and a dietician. The patient would have to go through several therapies to gain weight and may also be given anti-depressants to help with anxiety.

These are the traditional treatments. Researchers at King’s Institute of Psychiatry are working on something interesting in this regard, a technique called ‘repetitive trans cranial stimulation’ to see whether this reduces symptoms of anorexia. The technique targets the desolateral prefrontal cortex, which is an area of the brain that is involved in self-regulation and self-control, problems associated with anorexia.

The process involves stimulating this area of the brain by holding a coil against the head adjacent to the above region. Some trials have shown that the stimulation results in reducing levels of anxiety in the early stages of anorexia but not in the later ones; the work is still ongoing.

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