What Does Bulimia Do to Your Body?

Like all eating disorders, bulimia is a serious illness. It can permanently damage your body and can even be deadly.

People with bulimia will often eat large amounts of food, or binge, and then try to get rid of the calories in what is called a purge. This often involves vomiting, excessive exercising, or abuse of laxatives or diuretics. This cycle of behaviors can cause problems to all parts of your body.

Bulimia also affects your brain and is often linked to mental health problems like anxiety and depression.

But you can get help. There are many treatment options to stop the cycle of bingeing and purging. Just be sure to do them with the help of a doctor so that your recovery is safe.

The Physical Effects of Bulimia

The cycle of bingeing and purging takes a physical toll on your body. It can cause damage to everything from your heart and digestive system to your teeth and gums. It can create other problems as well, including the following:

Electrolyte imbalances. Electrolytes are chemicals such as sodium and potassium. They help your body keep the right amount of fluid in your blood vessels and organs. When you purge all the time, you lose electrolytes and make yourself dehydrated. This causes an electrolyte imbalance. It can lead to heart problems and even death.

Heart problems. These can include a rapid, fluttering, or pounding heart (called palpitations) and an abnormal heart rhythm, which is called an arrhythmia.

Damage to your esophagus. Forceful vomiting can cause tearing of the lining of your esophagus, the tube that connects your throat to your stomach. If it tears, it can cause severe and life-threatening bleeding. This is known as Mallory-Weiss syndrome. Bright red blood in your vomit is a symptom of this syndrome.

Burst esophagus. Repeated forceful vomiting can also cause your esophagus to burst. This is called Boerhaave syndrome. It is an emergency and needs immediate surgery.

Hormonal problems. Reproductive issues, including irregular periods, missed periods, and fertility problems are common side effects when you have bulimia.

Diabetes connection. Studies have shown a link between diabetes and bulimia. If you have type 1 diabetes and an eating disorder, you may also have a condition the popular media calls diabulimia. The term is meant to describe people with diabetes who are insulin dependent and deliberately take less than they're supposed to in order to try to lose weight. This can lead to serious health problems like stroke or coma or can even lead to death.


Russell’s sign. Regularly using your fingers to make yourself throw up can make the back of your finger joints discolored or callused. This skin condition is called Russell’s sign.

Mouth problems. The stomach acid in vomit can damage tooth enamel, making your teeth sensitive to hot and cold. Stomach acid can also discolor your teeth and cause gum disease.

Throwing up from purging creates painful sores in the corners of your mouth and soreness in the throat. And bulimia can lead to enlarged salivary glands in your mouth.

Digestive problems. Bulimia can permanently damage your stomach and intestines, causing other problems like constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, and irritable bowel syndrome.

Ipecac-induced myopathy, or muscle weakness. While some people use their fingers to make themselves throw up, others may use ipecac syrup, which was once used to make people throw up when they had been poisoned. Drinking too much ipecac over time can cause permanent heart damage and even death.

The Mental Health Risks

Aside from the physical damage bulimia does to your body, it is also linked to mental health problems. Some of the issues that you could deal with include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions

If you’re having any thoughts of harming yourself or committing suicide, call your doctor or 911 immediately. You can also call the free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. They are there to help you.

Recovery from bulimia can take a long time. But don’t let that stop you from getting help. If you're willing to seek treatment, there are many options that you, your family, and your doctor can discuss to create a plan that will work for you. Set goals, stick to your plan, and you can be on your way to overcoming this eating disorder.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Casarella on July 17, 2020



Mayo Clinic: “Bulimia Nervosa.”

UptoDate: “Bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder in adults: Medical complications and their management.”

University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center: “Electrolyte Imbalance.”

National Eating Disorder Association: “Bulimia Nervosa,” “Diabulimia.”

American Heart Association: “Arrhythmia.”

Cedars-Sinai: “Mallory-Weiss Syndrome.”

Mehler, P. Journal of Eating Disorders, 2015.

Bulimia Nervosa Resource Guide: “What are the signs and symptoms of bulimia nervosa?”

Science of Eating Disorders: “Medical Complications of Purging in Bulimia Nervosa.”

Eating Disorders Victoria: “Bulimia Nervosa.”

Holderness, C. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 1994.

Bodell, LP. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 2013.

© 2020 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.


091e9c5e81eafd14091e9c5e81eafd14art-bot-ddmodule_art-bot-dd_091e9c5e81eafd14.xmlwbmd_pb_module0144007/31/2020 13:36:120HTML