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Bulimia Nervosa

What is bulimia?

Bulimia is an eating disorder. It is characterized by uncontrolled episodes of overeating, called bingeing. This is followed by purging with methods such as vomiting or misuse of laxatives. Bingeing is eating much larger amounts of food than you would normally eat in a short period of time, usually less than 2 hours. You may feel like you can’t stop or control these episodes of binge eating.

The binge-purge cycles can happen from many times a day to several times a week.

Often, people with bulimia keep a normal or above normal body weight. This lets them hide their problem for years. Many people with bulimia don’t seek help until they reach the ages of 30 or 50. By this time, their eating behavior is deeply ingrained and harder to change.

There are 2 ways people with bulimia restrict calories:

  • Purging type. The person engages in self-induced vomiting or misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or enemas, or other medications that clear the intestines.
  • Non-purging type. The person uses other behaviors, such as fasting or excessive exercise, rather than purging behaviors.

Who is at risk for bulimia?

Bulimia most often affects females and starts during the teenage years. But, it can also affect males. People with bulimia are more likely to come from families with a history of eating disorders, physical illness, and other mental health problems. Other illnesses, such as substance abuse, anxiety disorders, and mood disorders are common in people with bulimia.

What causes bulimia?

The cause of bulimia is not known. Society and cultural ideals that assign value based on body weight and shape play a role. There is also a genetic link as eating disorders tend to run in families.

What are the symptoms of bulimia?

These are the most common symptoms of bulimia:

  • Usually a normal or above average body weight
  • Recurrent episodes of binge eating and fear of not being able to stop eating
  • Self-induced vomiting (usually secretive)
  • Excessive exercise
  • Excessive fasting
  • Peculiar eating habits or rituals
  • Inappropriate use of laxatives or diuretics
  • Irregular or absence of menstruation
  • Anxiety
  • Discouraged feelings related to dissatisfaction with themselves and the way their body looks
  • Depression
  • Preoccupation with food, weight, and body shape
  • Throat is always inflamed or sore
  • Tiredness and decreased energy

Most people with eating disorders also share certain traits including:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Fear of getting fat
  • Intense unhappiness with their body shape and size

If you have bulimia, you may binge to reduce stress and ease anxiety.

  • With binge eating comes guilt, disgust, and depression.
  • Purging brings only short-term relief.
  • You may be impulsive and more likely to take part in risky behaviors, such as alcohol and drug abuse.

The symptoms of bulimia may look like other medical problems or mental health conditions. Always consult a health care provider for a diagnosis.

How is bulimia diagnosed?

You likely keep your binging and purging secret. This is so family, friends, and health care providers won’t know about it. If you seek help from a health care professional for bulimia, he or she will want to gather a detailed history of your behaviors from you, your family, parents, and others. Sometimes, psychological testing is done.

Blood tests may be done to check overall health and nutritional status.

Early treatment can often prevent future problems. Bulimia, and the malnutrition that results, can affect nearly every organ system in the body.  Bulimia can be deadly. If you suspect bulimia, consult a health care provider for more information.

How is bulimia treated?

Bulimia is usually treated with both individual therapy and family therapy. The focus is on changing your behavior and correcting any nutritional problems.

Therapy looks at the link between your thoughts, feelings and behaviors. The therapist will explore the patterns of thinking that lead to self –destructive actions and help change that thinking.

Medicine (usually anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medicines) may help if you are also anxious or depressed.

A health care provider and a nutritionist will be part of your care.

Your family can play a vital supportive role in any treatment process.

In some cases, a hospital stay may be needed to treat electrolyte problems.

What are the complications of bulimia?

Complications of bulimia include:

  • Stomach rupture
  • Heart problems due to loss of vital minerals and electrolytes, such as potassium and sodium
  • Dental problems, the acid in vomit wears down the outer layer of the teeth
  • Inflamed esophagus
  • Swollen glands near the cheeks
  • Irregular menstrual periods
  • Kidney problems
  • Diminished sex drive
  • Addictions, substance abuse, and/or compulsive behavior
  • Depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other mental health problems
  • Suicidal behavior

Living with bulimia

It’s important to follow your health care provider’s advice for treating your bulimia. Support is necessary. Try to involve your family and friends in your care.

When should I call my health care provider?

If your symptoms get worse or you have new symptoms, tell your health care provider.

Key points about bulimia

  • Bulimia  is an eating disorder. It is characterized by uncontrolled episodes of overeating (called bingeing). This is followed by purging by self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives and other methods.
  • Bulimia typically affects females and starts during the teenage years. But, it can also affect males. Society and cultural ideals that  assign value based on body weight and shape play a role in the cause. So does genetics.
  • People with bulimia keep it very private and hidden.
  • Bulimia is usually treated with a combination of individual therapy and family therapy. The focus is on changing behavior and correcting any nutritional deficits.
  • Complications may include heart and kidney problems, inflamed esophagus, dental problems and others.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
Bulimia Nervosa - WellSpan Health

Online Medical Reviewer: Foster, Sara, RN, MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Stump-Sutliff, Kim, RN, MSN, AOCNS
Last Review Date: 2014-03-18T00:00:00
Last Modified Date: 2016-07-28T00:00:00
Published Date: 2016-07-28T00:00:00
Last Review Date: 2007-06-30T00:00:00
© 2016 WellSpan Health. All Rights Reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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