Anorexia nervosa, often referred to as anorexia, is a complex and potentially life-threatening eating disorder. It can cause people to develop an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image. Its impact can be profound, affecting a person’s physical health and emotional wellbeing. It can also have a destructive impact on their relationships and ability to function in their day-to-day life.
In the UK, the prevalence of anorexia has risen in recent years. Anorexia doesn’t discriminate; it can affect people of all ages, genders and backgrounds. However, it’s mainly seen in adolescents and young adults, with a higher prevalence in girls and young women. It’s estimated that up to 1 in 100 girls aged 15 to 19 in the UK will experience anorexia at some point.
These eating disorder statistics highlight the importance of addressing anorexia. Early intervention and access to effective treatment options are crucial.
Here, we’ll explore anorexia treatment in the UK, with a particular focus on private anorexia treatment options, offering hope to those in need of support and guidance.
Types of anorexia
There are a number of different types of anorexia, each with its own features. The classic presentation of anorexia includes severe food restriction and a distorted body image. However, there are a number of subtypes and related conditions.
This is the most common type of anorexia, where people severely limit their food intake and often exercise excessively in order to lose weight. They may believe they’re overweight, even when they’re significantly underweight.
Binge eating/purging type
Some people with anorexia engage in episodes of binge eating, followed by compensatory ‘purging’ behaviours to try and rid their bodies of the calories they’ve consumed. Purging might include things like making themselves vomit or abusing laxatives. This subtype of anorexia shares some of the features of bulimia nervosa.
Atypical anorexia is when someone doesn’t meet the low weight criteria for anorexia, but still shows psychological and behavioural symptoms. For example, people with this type of eating disorder may still have a fear of gaining weight, body image issues and restrictive eating patterns.
Orthorexia is a condition marked by someone having an obsession with healthy eating, to the point where it becomes harmful. People may fixate on eating foods they think of as being ‘pure’ or ‘clean’ and may exclude entire food groups. Orthorexia isn’t an official diagnosis, but it shares lots of overlap with anorexia nervosa.
Recognising the different types of anorexia is important so that treatment can be tailored to each person’s specific needs. This means that healthcare professionals can provide more personalised and effective support.
Life Works, Surrey, is known for its expert inpatient eating disorder service, helping those struggling with anorexia get their life back on track.
Day treatment services and outpatient services are also available.
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Symptoms of anorexia
Anorexia can cause a range of physical and emotional symptoms. These symptoms can vary in intensity, but collectively, they highlight the need for quick intervention and support.
- Significant weight loss – people with anorexia experience rapid and substantial weight loss. This can often result in a body weight that’s well below the healthy range for their age and height
- Extreme thinness – they may appear emaciated (especially thin or weak), with visible bones and a skeletal appearance
- Fatigue – anorexia can lead to severe fatigue and weakness, because the person isn’t getting the nutrition they need
- Dizziness and fainting – people might feel dizzy and faint due to low blood pressure and electrolyte imbalances, caused by their restricted food intake
- Hair and nail problems – hair might become brittle and fall out, and nails can become brittle or develop a bluish tinge
- Gastrointestinal issues – constipation, bloating and other digestive problems may occur
- Amenorrhoea – girls and women with anorexia may experience amenorrhoea, which is when menstruation (periods) stop. This is caused by hormonal imbalances due to severe weight loss
- Reduced immunity – people with anorexia are often more prone to prolonged bacterial, viral and fungal infections
- Poor hygiene – due to spending so much time obsessing over food, people with anorexia can often forget to wash, brush their teeth or look after their personal hygiene
Emotional and cognitive symptoms:
- Intense fear of gaining weight – one of the main emotional symptoms is an overwhelming fear of gaining weight, even if the person is significantly underweight
- Body image distortion – having a distorted body image can make people with anorexia believe they’re fat, even when they are presented with evidence to the contrary
- Anxiety and depression – many people with anorexia experience mental health issues like anxiety and depression, which are often made worse by the physical toll that the anorexia is having on their body
- Social withdrawal – anorexia can lead to isolation and withdrawal from social activities, as people might feel self-conscious about how they look, or about eating in front of other people
- Obsessive thoughts about food – people with anorexia tend to be constantly preoccupied with food, calories and meal planning
- Secretive behaviour – anorexia can be a very secretive illness, and sufferers will often go to great lengths to try and conceal their unhealthy eating habits. This might include hiding food, lying about what they have eaten and wearing baggy clothes to conceal their weight loss
Anorexia treatment options
Effective treatment for eating disorders, including anorexia, often involves a number of approaches, tailored to each person’s needs. In the UK, treatment guidelines outlined by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) provide a framework for care.
One of the evidence-based treatments recommended for anorexia is cognitive behavioural therapy for eating disorders (CBT-E). This specialised form of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) focuses on challenging unhealthy beliefs and behaviours that are associated with anorexia.
Another approach is the Maudsley Anorexia Nervosa Treatment for Adults (MANTRA). This includes some elements of CBT, while exploring underlying emotional issues that might be contributing towards the eating disorder.
For adults with severe and enduring anorexia, specialist supportive clinical management (SSCM) can be an appropriate treatment method. This technique provides consistent support and encouragement, helping them to regain control.
For young people, family-based treatment (FBT) has shown to be very effective when tackling anorexia. FBT involves the young person’s family in the treatment process, with the aim of restoring a healthy weight and eating pattern.
Nutritional counselling and medical monitoring also play an important role in treatment. Medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) might be prescribed to manage any co-occurring mental health problems. In addition, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is also being explored for its potential effectiveness when it comes to treating anorexia.
It’s important to understand that treatment should be adapted to the unique needs of each person and a combination of methods, including individual and group therapy, could be beneficial. Ultimately, the choice of treatment should be made in conjunction with healthcare professionals, taking into account the person’s age, how severe their anorexia is and other individual circumstances.
Weight restoration isn't the only goal of anorexia treatment. Specialists will also work with you to change your unhealthy thoughts and behaviours around food, promoting long-term recovery.
Emma’s* parents, were worried about their 16 year old; for over a year she had been on a diet that didn’t seem to stop.
After fainting at school and being hospitalised, Emma's parents knew she needed help. Tests showed Emma had low bradycardia and hypothermia and had to have repeated blood tests and an electrocardiogram (ECG). She was nursed on bed rest with 24-hour care, and was prescribed a gradually increasing diet by the dietitian.
As her weight went up, Emma's started participating in Priory’s intensive therapy programme and was allocated an individual therapist. Emma particiapted in individual therapy, group therapy, and family therapy, focusing on body image, CBT, and nutritional information.
16 weeks later, on discharge, Emma had gained control over her eating disorder and was happy spending time with her friends and family again, and going back to school.
Read more about Emma's eating disorder story here.
Helping someone with anorexia
Supporting someone with anorexia is crucial for their wellbeing, and early intervention is key to a successful recovery. If you suspect a loved one may be struggling with anorexia, approaching the situation with care and empathy is vital.
Begin by expressing your concerns in a non-judgemental manner, and let them know you’re there to support and listen to them. Encourage them to seek professional help and emphasise the importance of getting an early diagnosis. In addition, it’s a good idea to try to educate yourself about anorexia and its symptoms, as this knowledge can help you understand what they’re going through a bit better.
It’s important that you avoid making comments about their appearance or eating habits. Doing so might make them feel judged and ‘attacked’, which can increase their distress. Instead, offer emotional support and accompany them to medical and therapy appointments if they want you to.
Also, it’s important that you encourage open communication and let them know that you’re there for them. Remember, recovery from anorexia can be a lengthy process. Your patience, understanding and ongoing support can make a world of difference.
Get help for anorexia today
Anorexia is a challenging condition but recovery is possible with the right support and treatment. Seeking help early is the most crucial step towards regaining control over your life and health.
Private providers like Priory offer specialist care and a compassionate approach to anorexia treatment, tailored to your needs. We also offer eating disorder support for children and adolescents, through our young people’s services. Treatment may include talking therapy, dietetic workshops and support groups.
Call us to today to find out about our approach to eating disorder treatment, and how we can help you to get back on track. Remember that you don’t have to face this journey alone; countless people are here to support you.