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Anorexia — A Mental Health Issue That Can Kill You

Posted May 29 2013 7:55am

Since I began writing this blog nearly six years ago, one issue continues to present itself and that is that much of the need for transplantable organs is avoidable.  Avoidable  in the sense that our living and eating habits are responsible to a great degree for the state of our health.

There will never be enough donated organs to meet the demand.  I arrived at that conclusion after nearly six years of researching the subject and 170 blogs. It is four decades since the National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA) was passed, millions of dollars and even more millions of volunteer hours have been spent to promote organ donation, yet fewer than 40 percent of Americans are organ donors.

The approach failed because it was one-sided.  If we had simultaneously spent  as much time, energy and money on getting us all to live healthier lives we could have cut the demand for human organs considerably.  As the old comic strip cartoon character Pogo said, ”We have met the enemy and he is us.”  It is not just that we don’t take very good care of ourselves, we seem to make every effort to go out of our way to abuse our bodies and kill our organs.

If we did just three things we could probably cut the need for organs in half.  1) exercise regularly, 2) be very careful about what we consume (food, alcohol, tobacco and drugs), 3) paid more attention to mental health issues.

The first two, exercise and consumption are obvious but point number three is rarely given any consideration.  Mental health and organ damage are very closely related.

According to U.S. News and World Report, http://tinyurl.com/7djepm2   research paints a compelling argument on the link between the two. Adults with serious mental illness like schizophrenia die about 25 years earlier than the general population, according to a 2007 report from the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors. They’re 3.4 times more likely to die of heart disease or diabetes, 3.8 times more likely to die in an accident, 5 times more likely to die of respiratory ailments, and 6.6 times more likely to die of pneumonia or flu, found the team led by Joseph Parks, director of the Missouri Institute of Mental Health.

Why? They often get little exercise, leading to obesity and hiking the odds of diabetes and heart disease. They’re also more likely than others to smoke and have alcohol and drug-abuse problems. It’s common for their medical needs to slip through the cracks, too, because they often cannot adequately advocate for their own health according to U.S.News.

An often ignored fact is this; eating disorders have a higher death rate than any other psychiatric disorder (including depression and schizophrenia).

How serious the consequences are depends greatly upon how early an eating disorder is identified and treated. With help, the effects of an eating disorder can be treated; however, if an eating disorder is left untreated for years, some of the effects are irreversible and life-threatening.

When an eating disorder is successfully treated, the body can heal and return to normal. Sometimes, however, the eating disorder has continued for so many years that there is too much damage for a full recovery to occur. A person may have to live with a weak heart or kidney for the rest of her life. A woman may be unable to conceive because her reproductive system cannot function properly.

Eating disorders include Anorexia and Bulimia and we will be writing more about the disorders in the not too distant future but this blog will concentrate only on Anorexia.  A disease that is common, and can kill.  First, though, let’s define Anorexia.

Anorexia nervosa is a complex eating disorder with three key features:

    refusal to maintain a healthy body weight an intense fear of gaining weight a distorted body image
Because of your dread of becoming fat or disgusted with how your body looks, eating and mealtimes may be very stressful. And yet, what you can and can’t eat is practically all you can think about.

Thoughts about dieting, food, and your body may take up most of your day—leaving little time for friends, family, and other activities you used to enjoy. Life becomes a relentless pursuit of thinness and going to extremes to lose weight.

But no matter how skinny you become, it’s never enough.

While people with anorexia often deny having a problem, the truth is that anorexia is a serious and potentially deadly eating disorder. Fortunately, recovery is possible. With proper treatment and support, you or someone you care about can break anorexia’s self-destructive pattern and regain health and self-confidence.

There are two types of anorexia. In the restricting type of anorexia, weight loss is achieved by restricting calories (following drastic diets, fasting, and exercising to excess). In the purging type of anorexia, weight loss is achieved by vomiting or using laxatives and diuretics.  This chart gives a pretty good idea of how Anorexia, a mental health disease, affects the physical health of the person involved.  

Anorexia is Not About Food!

if you suffer from Anorexia or any eating disorder you may not belive it but food and weight are not the real issues. They are symptoms of much deeper and more complicated and usually related to things like depression, loneliness, insecurity, pressure to be perfect, or feeling out of control. Things that no amount of dieting or weight loss can cure.

Image of body parts affected by anorexia

(for graphic and more)

Anorexia nervosa has a multitude of medical complications ranging from mild to severe. In fact, 5-20% of anorexics die, usually from complications associated with self-starvation, such as: heart, kidney, or multiple organ failure, or illnesses like pneumonia, which may be due to an inability to fight infection—all due to the dangers of anorexia.

  • Cardiac Problems—irregular heartbeat
  • Gastrointestinal disorders—risk of internal bleeding, ulcers, gastritis, and constipation
  • Amenorrhea—due to decreased estrogen production, which causes females to cease ovulation and menstruation
  • Anemia—a blood disorder characterized by either a decrease in the number of red cells, or a reduction in hemoglobin; the body’s ability to carry oxygen from the lungs to its tissues is reduced; often caused by an iron deficiency
  • binging—an effect of starvation
  • bruising
  • decreased testicular function in men—some studies reveal a decrease in testosterone and certain male hormones
  • dental decay and discoloration
  • depressed immune system
  • dizziness
  • dry skin; brittle hair and nails
  • edema—water retention, most commonly in the ankles and feet
  • endocrine abnormalities
  • fainting
  • high cholesterol—an effect of starvation, not necessarily warranting a low cholesterol diet
  • hyperactivity
  • hypoglycemia
  • increased risk of osteoporosis—bones lose density and fracture easily
  • insomnia
  • ketosis—the excessive accumulation of ketone bodies in the blood and urine, which is indicative of the body digesting its fat stores as a sole source of energy
  • kidney damage/failure—usually due to dehydration; many be worsened by the use of diuretics
  • lanugo—the growth of fine hair on the body, which is the body’s attempt to keep itself warm when fat stores are depleted
  • liver damage—a condition that is usually irreparable
  • loss of hair on the head
  • low blood pressure
  • low body temperature—causes anorexics to feel cold
  • muscle cramps and weakness—usually due to electrolyte imbalances
  • pancreatitis—the painful swelling of the pancreas evidenced by severe abdominal pain, distention, and fever
  • sensitivity to light and sound
  • yellow skin—also called hypercarotinemia

Adequate nutrition, reducing excessive exercise, and stop-ping purging behaviors are the foundations of treatment. Specific forms of psychotherapy, or talk therapy, and medication are effective for many eating disorders. However, in more chronic cases, specific treatments have not yet been identified. Treatment plans often are tailored to individual needs and may include one or more of the following:

  • Individual, group, and/or family psychotherapy
  • Medical care and monitoring
  • Nutritional counseling
  • Medications.

Some patients may also need to be hospitalized to treat problems caused by mal-nutrition or to ensure they eat enough if they are very underweight.

Treating anorexia nervosa involves three components:

  • Restoring the person to a healthy weight
  • Treating the psychological issues related to the eating disorder
  • Reducing or eliminating behaviors or thoughts that lead to insufficient eating and preventing relapse.

Some research suggests that the use of medications, such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, or mood stabilizers, may be modestly effective in treating patients with anorexia nervosa. These medications may help resolve mood and anxiety symptoms that often occur along with anorexia nervosa. It is not clear whether antidepressants can prevent some weight-restored patients with anorexia nervosa from relapsing.10 Although research is still ongoing, no medication yet has shown to be effective in helping someone gain weight to reach a normal level.11

Different forms of psychotherapy, including individual, group, and family-based, can help address the psychological reasons for the illness. In a therapy called the Maudsley approach, parents of adolescents with anorexia nervosa assume responsibility for feeding their child. This approach appears to be very effective in helping people gain weight and improve eating habits and moods.12,13 Shown to be effective in case studies and clinical trials,14 the Maudsley approach is discussed in some guidelines and studies for treating eating disorders in younger, non-chronic patients.11,12,15-18

Other research has found that a combined approach of medical attention and supportive psychotherapy designed specifically for anorexia nervosa patients is more effective than psychotherapy alone.19 The effectiveness of a treatment depends on the person involved and his or her situation. Unfortunately, no specific psychotherapy appears to be consistently effective for treating adults with anorexia nervosa.20 However, research into new treatment and prevention approaches is showing some promise. One study suggests that an online intervention program may prevent some at-risk women from developing an eating disorder.21 Also, specialized treatment of anorexia nervosa may help reduce the risk of death.22

For more information on eating disorders and treatment here are a few links:

Bob Aronson of Bob’s Newheart is a 2007 heart transplant recipient, the founder of Facebook’s nearly 2,500 member Organ Transplant Initiative and the author of most of these donation/transplantation blogs.

You may comment in the space provided or email your thoughts to me at bob@baronson.org. And – please spread the word about the immediate need for more organ donors. There is nothing you can do that is of greater importance. If you convince one person to be an organ and tissue donor you may save or positively affect over 60 lives. Some of those lives may be people you know and love.

Please view our new music video “Dawn Anita The Gift of Life” on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYFFJoHJwHs .  This video is free to anyone who wants to use it and no permission is needed. 

If you want to spread the word personally about organ donation, we have another PowerPoint slide show for your use free and without permission. Just go to http://www.organti.org and click on “Life Pass It On” on the left side of the screen and then just follow the directions. This is NOT a stand-alone show; it needs a presenter but is professionally produced and factually sound. If you decide to use the show I will send you a free copy of my e-book, “How to Get a Standing “O” that will help you with presentation skills. Just write to bob@baronson.org and usually you will get a copy the same day.

Also…there is more information on this blog site about other donation/transplantation issues. Additionally we would love to have you join our Facebook group, Organ Transplant Initiative The more members we get the greater our clout with decision makers.

En Espanol

Puede comentar en el espacio proporcionado o por correo electrónico sus pensamientos a mí en bob@baronson.org. Y – por favor, difundir la palabra acerca de la necesidad inmediata de más donantes de órganos. No hay nada que puedas hacer lo que es de mayor importancia. Si usted convence a una persona de ser donante de órganos y tejidos puede salvar o afectar positivamente a más de 60 vidas. Algunas de esas vidas pueden ser personas que conoces y amas.

Por favor, consulte nuestro nuevo video musical “Dawn Anita The Gift of Life” en YouTube. Este video es libre para cualquier persona que quiera usarlo y no se necesita permiso.

Si quieres correr la voz acerca de la donación de órganos personalmente, tenemos otra presentación de PowerPoint para su uso libre y sin permiso. Sólo tienes que ir a y haga clic en “Life Pass It On” en el lado izquierdo de la pantalla y luego sólo tienes que seguir las instrucciones. Esto no es un espectáculo independiente, sino que necesita un presentador pero es profesionalmente producida y sonido hechos. Si usted decide usar el programa le enviaré una copia gratuita de mi libro electrónico, “Cómo obtener un pie” O “que le ayudará con habilidades de presentación. Sólo tiene que escribir a bob@baronson.org y por lo general usted recibirá una copia del mismo día.

Además … hay más información sobre este sitio de blogs sobre otros donación / trasplante temas. Además nos encantaría que te unas a nuestro grupo de Facebook, la Iniciativa de Trasplante de Órganos Cuantos más miembros que obtenemos mayor será nuestra influencia con los tomadores de decisiones.


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