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St. Paul, MN 55108
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Eating Disorders We Treat

What Is Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by an inability to eat enough food to maintain weight and/or growth trajectories; exceptionally low body weight; an obsessive concern with weight gain; and a distorted body image. Anorexia nervosa has two subtypes and can involve both severe restriction of food intake and binge/purge behaviors. The median age of onset is 12 years old and falling; the disorder has been diagnosed in individuals as young as five. Anorexia nervosa can be life-threatening, with mortality often associated with cardiac complications and suicide.

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What causes anorexia nervosa?

Like all eating disorders, anorexia nervosa develops over a period of time as a result of a complicated blend of genetic, biological, and environmental factors. There is no single cause to point to, and despite common misconceptions, families, and communities of support are not to blame. In fact, they are often recovery’s strongest ally. Many individuals have genetic predispositions to anorexia nervosa that may or may not be awakened by environmental influences over the course of their life.

  • Biological factors such as genetics, altered brain circuitry, and weakened food-related pathways can all contribute to the development of anorexia. Malnutrition can also induce changes in physiological processes that regulate hunger and fullness signals.
  • Environmental factors including cultural pressures to conform to appearance standards, weight-based comments and teasing, and media messages can result in an increased risk of anorexia in those susceptible.
  • Psychological factors such as anxiety, depression, stressors, low self-esteem, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and trauma are among the contributing factors that could tip a vulnerable population group into developing anorexia.
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What are the effects of anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa has severe physical effects on the body. The physical impact of anorexia is pervasive, affecting various bodily systems, including the cardiovascular, integumentary, skeletal, nervous, gastrointestinal, and endocrine systems.

Cardiovascular System

  • Anorexia exerts significant strain on the cardiovascular system. Severe weight loss and malnutrition can lead to bradycardia (a slowed heart rate) and hypotension (low blood pressure). These changes are the body’s adaptive response to conserve energy. However, they can result in dizziness, fatigue, and even cardiac arrhythmias. In extreme cases, anorexia can lead to heart failure, which poses a grave risk to health.

Integumentary System

  • The integumentary system—composed of the skin, hair, and nails—is profoundly affected by anorexia. Malnourishment can cause skin to become dry and hair to become thin, fine, even brittle, or hair may fall out altogether. Nails may become brittle and prone to breakage. Additionally, the development of lanugo, a fine layer of hair that grows over the body as a response to malnutrition, is observed in some individuals with anorexia.

Skeletal System

  • Anorexia weakens the skeletal system due to calcium depletion from bones. This can lead to osteopenia or osteoporosis, conditions characterized by reduced bone density and increased risk of fractures. The loss of bone mass is a consequence of hormonal imbalances resulting from malnutrition and can have long-term implications for bone health.

Nervous System

  • The impact of anorexia on the nervous system is profound. Malnutrition can lead to cognitive impairment, affecting concentration, memory, and decision-making abilities. Individuals with anorexia may experience difficulty concentrating and processing information efficiently. These cognitive effects can significantly impair academic or professional performance.

Gastrointestinal System

  • The gastrointestinal system is adversely affected by anorexia. Prolonged malnutrition can lead to gastrointestinal complications such as constipation, bloating, and delayed gastric emptying. Additionally, refeeding after prolonged malnutrition poses risks of refeeding syndrome, a potentially fatal shift in fluids and electrolytes that can occur when nutrition is reintroduced.

Endocrine System

  • Anorexia disrupts the endocrine system, leading to hormonal imbalances that affect various bodily functions. Women with anorexia often experience amenorrhea, the absence of menstruation due to hormonal disturbances. Hormonal imbalances can also affect metabolism and energy regulation.

Anorexia nervosa has profound and far-reaching physical effects on the body. From cardiovascular strain to skeletal weakening and cognitive impairment, the consequences of anorexia are severe and potentially life-threatening. Early intervention and comprehensive treatment are essential to address the physical impact of anorexia and support recovery.

What should you look for if you worry that someone has anorexia nervosa?

Being familiar with the signs and symptoms of anorexia can help you champion early intervention and improve recovery rates for anorexia nervosa. Things to watch for include body checking, significantly restricting food intake, and/or extreme food rigidity that allows for only small quantities of certain foods. Associated disorders, or “comorbidities,” include obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and social phobia.

  • People with anorexia often have a distorted perception of their body image and an intense fear of gaining weight.
  • Extreme food restriction, obsessive calorie counting, frequent body and weight checking, and excessive or compulsive exercise can all be signs of anorexia.
  • Hiding or throwing away food and/or skipping meals is commonly seen in people with anorexia.
  • Rigidity or obsessiveness also often accompanies anorexia, as does an intense fear of food or a specific food.
  • Cold intolerance, hair loss, and skin and nail discoloration are among the physical symptoms of anorexia.

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What are the risks of anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa can have extreme medical and physiological consequences that may or may not resolve completely during recovery.

  • Anorexia can lead to serious health risks such as electrolyte imbalances, congestive heart failure, and sudden death, as well as gastrointestinal issues like constipation, bloating, and gastroparesis.
  • Osteoporosis, easy bruising, and the growth of fine white hair all over the body (lanugo) are commonly associated with anorexia.
  • Anorexia can impair a person’s decision-making abilities and impulse control.
  • Anorexia can also impact a person’s sexual health and result in decreased frequency of erections and nocturnal emissions, as well as amenorrhea, difficulty conceiving, and increased risk for miscarriage, low birth weight, and postpartum depression.

How can you recover from anorexia nervosa?

If you or a loved one are struggling with anorexia, don’t wait to reach out for help. The earlier anorexia is treated, the better the outcomes tend to be.

At Veritas Collaborative, we work with you to create an individualized care plan so you or your child with anorexia get the right treatment at the right time. We offer a full continuum of care, which includes inpatient, residential, partial hospitalization (PHP), intensive outpatient (IOP), outpatient, and virtual programs for children, adolescents, and adults of all genders. This allows us to provide best-in-class care and support throughout your recovery journey, even as your needs change. Our treatment programs focus on real-life skills, including hands-on nutrition and culinary experiences that you can take with you for lasting recovery. We encourage family involvement and offer family-based therapy and educational support for children and adolescents.

Key Takeaways

  • Anorexia nervosa is a serious mental illness that can have life-threatening consequences if not treated promptly and effectively.
  • The physical symptoms of anorexia nervosa can include extreme weight loss, malnutrition, and organ damage.
  • Anorexia nervosa is often accompanied by psychological symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
  • Effective treatment for anorexia nervosa involves a multidisciplinary approach that addresses both the physical and psychological aspects of the illness.
  • Early intervention is crucial for successful recovery from anorexia nervosa, and family and social support can play a critical role in the recovery process.

Updated April 2024

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