Bulimia nervosa, also referred to as bulimia, is a serious eating disorder that has potentially fatal medical and psychological consequences. It is characterized by repeated instances of eating significantly more food than what most people would eat in a short period of time, followed by one or more behaviors to attempt to compensate for the food eaten. These behaviors, also known as purging or compensatory behaviors, might include vomiting, intense exercising, or the use of substances like diet pills or laxatives. It is associated with significant impairment in the individual's life and occurs, on average, once per week for at least three months.
Individuals struggling with bulimia often appear to be of average weight, so it can be difficult to identify when a person is suffering from it. Below is a list of signs and symptoms commonly found in individuals who suffer from it:
Eating unusually large amounts of food in a relatively short period of time, also known as binge eating
Feeling out of control with food
Eating until uncomfortably full
Intentionally vomiting after eating
Using the bathroom during or immediately following meals
Exercising vigorously in order to compensate for food eaten, despite fatigue, injury or illness
Using medications or substances such as laxatives, diuretics or diet pills after a binge episode in order to prevent weight gain
Feeling preoccupied, worried or sad about body or weight
Struggling to fulfill responsibilities as a result of eating patterns, exercise habits or thoughts about appearance
Like other eating disorders, a combination of different factors can lead to the development of bulimia. Some of these factors include:
Genetics or other biological factors
Emotional factors, such as feelings of inadequacy
Cultural and societal pressures to be “thin”
Interpersonal dynamics, such as impaired communication in relationships
It is important to keep in mind that contributing factors are unique to each person and no one cause is solely responsible for causing bulimia.
In bulimia, the repeated binge and purge cycle can severely damage a person’s digestive system. Purging behaviors can lead to life-threatening electrolyte and chemical imbalances which affect functioning of the heart and other critical organs. Below is a list of medical consequences and symptoms:
Electrolyte imbalances which cause irregular heartbeats and can possibly lead to heart failure or death
Damage and inflammation of the esophagus and peptic ulcers from repeated vomiting
Tooth staining and decay from stomach acid
Chronic irregular bowel movements and constipation due to laxative abuse
With bulimia, a self-perpetuating cycle of binging and purging is developed over time. The cycle becomes more and more difficult to break despite the distress being caused. Many people suffering from bulimia are aware that their behaviors could be dangerous to their health but are often unable to break the cycle without professional help. Bulimia, like other eating disorders, has an increased risk of death due to medical consequences or suicide. An individual’s chance for recovery greatly improves the earlier bulimia is detected, so prompt intervention is essential.