What is Anorexia and Does It Cause Hair Loss?

Anorexia Nervosa is a chronic eating disorder that affects adolescent females, young adults in their twenties and middle-age, and males in their teens. Common symptoms are obsessing with self-image and weight control or not getting “fat” by extreme dieting to the point of emaciation. Sufferers of anorexia tend to be underweight for their age and height. 

anorexia hair loss sober speak

Due to undereating, anorexia leads to malnutrition and a lack of enough nutrients for the body. This leads to health problems over a long period of time. One common health problem seen in anorexia is hair loss.

What is Anorexia?

Anorexia is a serious mental health condition in the eating disorder category. The medical term is anorexia nervosa, and it is defined as an eating disorder that causes people to weigh less than is considered healthy for their age and height, usually by excessive weight loss. People with this disorder may have an intense fear of weight gain, even when they are underweight. They may diet or exercise too much or use other ways to lose weight.

MedlinePlus says anorexia has two subtypes:

  • Restrictor – People with this type of anorexia severely limit how much food they eat. This usually includes foods high in carbohydrates and fats.
  • Bulimic (binging and purging)- People with bulimia nervosa eat too much food and then make themselves throw up. They may take large amounts of laxatives or other methods to clear their bowels.

What Causes Anorexia?

According to the Mayo Clinic, the exact cause of anorexia is unknown. Like many diseases, it’s probably a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. They divide it into three categories:

  • Biological – Although it’s not yet clear which genes are involved, there may be genetic changes that put some people at higher risk of developing anorexia. Some people may have a genetic tendency toward perfectionism, sensitivity, and perseverance, all traits associated with anorexia.
  • Psychological – Some people with anorexia may have obsessive-compulsive personality traits that make it easier to stick to strict diets and forgo food despite being hungry. They may have an extreme drive for perfectionism, which causes them to think they’re never thin enough. They may have high levels of anxiety and engage in restrictive eating to reduce it.
  • Environmental – Modern Western culture emphasizes thinness. Success and worth are often equated with being thin. Peer pressure may help fuel this desire, particularly among young girls.

Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia

The main symptom of anorexia nervosa, commonly known as anorexia, is someone who is deliberately losing too much weight for their height and age. There are many signs and symptoms of anorexia. We will discuss several of those here.

Numerous physical signs, along with a person’s symptoms, are used to diagnose anorexia nervosa. “Signs” refer to things that can be observed or measured objectively. Some signs can be visually observed, while others are identified by a physician at a hospital or doctor’s office through lab tests or scans.

Visual signs of anorexia can be missed in the early stages. Awareness of warning signs for eating disorders is crucial for those who may be affected. It can help get the treatment needed to recover and minimize the long-term health risks of anorexia.

According to Jennifer Huddy, MS, RD, LD, the top visual signs of anorexia nervosa include: 

  • Rapid weight loss/underweight
  • Brittle nails
  • Brittle hair
  • Hair loss
  • Lanugo (fine hair on the body)
  • Pale complexion
  • Cold extremities with a blue tint
  • Delayed puberty
  • Poor dental health
  • Dehydration (dry lips/mouth, sunken eyes)

Emotional symptoms of anorexia include:

  • Withdrawal from social situations
  • Loss of interest in sex
  • Irritability
  • Mood changes
  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem

Food or weight-related symptoms can include:

  • Distorted body image
  • Low body weight
  • Extreme fear of becoming fat
  • Excessive exercise
  • Denial of hunger
  • Fixation with food preparation
  • Food restriction
  • Unusual eating behaviors, including self-induced vomiting

Anorexia and Hair Loss

Hair follicle health depends on healthy cells that start with the nutritional support from food intake that travels to the bloodstream. Through this function, the cells in the blood carry vitamins and minerals to the hair follicles and generate hair growth and texture. Deficiencies in iron, zinc, protein, selenium, and essential fatty acids have all been linked to hair loss. Major stress, which sometimes comes along with restrictive dieting, has also been linked to hair thinning.

anorexia hair loss

Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, are essential for healthy hair growth and for producing keratin, the main structural protein of hair. Protein malnutrition can result in hair loss when the body doesn’t get enough protein. If restricting food intake and not getting enough protein, anorexia patients may begin to experience hair shedding.

It is common to lose hair after rapid weight loss. Someone with a serious eating disorder like anorexia will suffer from restricting essential nutrients for healthy hair growth and overall hair health. They may suffer from dry hair, dry skin, or a condition known as alopecia areata (hair loss). Sudden weight loss and restrictive diets have been linked to acute telogen effluvium (TE), one of the most common causes of widespread scalp hair loss.

Source: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/weight-loss-and-hair-loss

Anorexia and Body Hair Growth (Lanugo)

Lanugo is a soft, downy hair on the face and body. According to the Eating Recovery Center, when it shows up in an adolescent or adult, it can be a sign of anorexia. In individuals with anorexia, lanugo often appears as fine, downy, pigmented hairs on the back, abdomen, and forearms. It can also appear on the sides of the face, the spine, and the neck and legs.

Lanugo is a sign of starvation and frequently shows up in patients with anorexia.

  • When an individual with anorexia restricts their food intake, they no longer receive enough nutrients.
  • Without proper nutrition, weight loss leads to the loss of protective body fat, and the body starts to shut down.
  • This can cause many long-term side effects of anorexia, including lanugo.

As the body loses muscle and fat, it struggles to maintain a normal body temperature; lanugo may appear as a way to help the body conserve heat.

Lanugo will eventually go away with proper nutrition and a healthy diet. However, people with anorexia are not likely to consume enough nutrients easily. One of the hallmark features of anorexia is the person’s lack of insight into the fact that they have an eating disorder. Individuals with eating disorders often minimize their symptoms and delay seeking treatment.

Conclusion

Treatment available for anorexia involves talk therapy, emotional support, and supervised weight gain with proper nutrition and a healthy diet. With this medical treatment, the body can heal, and physical health returns.

Disorder treatment options include cognitive behavioral therapy. A therapist will help create a custom treatment plan, help the patient talk and cope with feelings, help the patient understand nutrition and the medical complications of starvation, and help the patient make healthy food choices. Once the patient returns to a healthy weight and physical health, nutrition returns to the body, and most likely, the patient will grow a full head of hair. The good news is that after the severe damage anorexia causes to the human body, the body can reverse the damage and heal. It takes time and a group effort, but it can be done.