Bulimia Nervosa Facts, Symptoms and Causes

Bulimia Facts

Bulimia is a condition where sufferers typically binge and purge. Bingeing is consuming large quantities of food in a short time, during which individuals feel they have no control over their eating. Purging is the release of that food by self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse or compulsive exercising.

Purging is not necessarily used to lose weight. It may be used to demonstrate control or for punishment.

Although the number of males who develop eating disorders is increasing, bulimia most frequently afflicts adolescent girls and young women. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 1.1% to 4.2% of females have bulimia at some point in their lives. Bulimia can affect people of practically any age. It is increasingly common in pre-teens and can affect seniors, too. Many people who have bulimia also have other eating disorders.

Medical Impact of Bulimia

Frequent bingeing and purging of food can have severe medical consequences. Purging can result in the loss of minerals the body needs to function properly, resulting in an electrolyte imbalance. This imbalance can result in irregular heartbeats, increasing the potential for heart failure and death. Those who use drugs to stimulate vomiting, bowel movements or urination further increase the risk of heart failure.

Frequent vomiting can cause other health problems, such as swollen glands, and inflammation or tearing of the esophagus, which can be deadly. Acid from vomit can wear down the protective layer of a person’s teeth. Those with bulimia often have irregular menstrual periods and lowered interest in sex. Many bulimia patients have other mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. They also may be addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Bulimia may also cause an electrolyte imbalance, chronic constipation, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, swelling and acid reflux.

Signs of Bulimia

Those with bulimia can frequently hide their affliction, because people with bulimia often maintain a normal body weight. Physical signs of bulimia may include swollen glands, discolored teeth and calluses on the hands caused by self-inducing vomiting. People with bulimia are always extremely concerned with their body weight and shape, and they may have a distorted image of their body. Look for evidence of bingeing and purging. Bulimics may hide food. Excessive amounts of food containers and wrappers are also evidence of bingeing.

Evidence of purging may include the frequent smell of vomit, excessive trips to the bathroom after meals, and excessive exercise taking place in spite of weather, illness, injury or other factors. Frequent purchasing of laxatives or diuretics, or disposal of packaging for such products, is another sign of bulimia. People with bulimia often create complex schedules to make time for bingeing and purging. Also, people with bulimia are often socially withdrawn, and become obsessed with weight loss and controlling what they eat.
Other signs of bulimia may include:
  • Eating unusually large amounts of food with no apparent change in weight
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom after meals
  • Excessive use of diuretics
  • Going to kitchen frequently when everyone is sleeping
  • Excessive, rigid exercise
  • Rituals to allow for bingeing and purging

Causes of Bulimia

While more research is needed before we understand the causes of bulimia and other eating disorders, we now know that several factors can lead to bulimia. While there is no single root cause, we believe that people with bulimia have a chemical imbalance in the brain that affects their behavior.

Genetics are also a major factor of bulimia, as are cultural ideals about body image.

A traumatic event, which may have taken place years before bulimia manifests itself, may also have an impact. Such events may include sexual abuse or rape, emotional abuse, parents’ divorce, death of a loved one or a history of being teased or ridiculed.

Bulimia often starts with a diet, which may be meant to help the person regain self-esteem and control. Restriction, such as severe dieting, often plays a major role. When people deprive themselves of food, they may respond by bingeing. Feeling guilt for breaking their diet, they may then purge. Once a cycle of bingeing and purging is established, it is difficult to break.

Some people perceive bulimia as a way to cope with problems when they feel out of control.

Helping Someone With Bulimia

If you suspect you or someone you know has bulimia, do something about it. Seek professional counseling immediately. Call your primary care physician or an eating disorders treatment program in your area.

For help in New England, please contact Walden Behavioral Care at 781-647-6727 or online.