Effects of Bulimia on the Body

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on August 31, 2022
5 min read

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 binging and purging. Just be sure to do them with the help of a doctor so that your recovery is safe.

The cycle of bingeing and purging takes a 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:

  • Dehydration. Your body loses fluids when you throw up or overuse diuretics.
  • Electrolyte imbalances. When you get very dehydrated, you lose electrolytes. These are chemicals such as sodium and potassium. They help your body keep the right amount of fluid in your blood vessels and organs. An electrolyte imbalance could 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.
  • Low blood pressure. Your blood pressure might drop so low that you're at risk of fainting.
  • Trouble regulating body temperature. When you don’t eat enough to fuel your body, your body temperature may drop. You might feel cold all the time.
  • Damage to your esophagus. Forceful vomiting can cause tears in 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's an emergency and needs immediate surgery.
  • Acid reflux. When the lower part of your esophagus gets damaged, stomach acid can come back up through it. That causes indigestion and heartburn.
  • Other digestive problems. Bulimia can permanently damage your stomach and intestines, causing other problems like constipation, diarrhea, and irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Hormonal problems. Reproductive issues, including irregular periods, missed periods, and fertility problems are common side effects when you have bulimia.
  • Diabetes connection. If you have type 1 diabetes and an eating disorder, you may also have a condition that has been called diabulimia. The term describes people with diabetes who need insulin but deliberately take less than they're supposed to in an effort to lose weight. This can lead to serious health problems like stroke, coma, and death.
  • Tooth decay. The stomach acid in vomit can damage tooth enamel, making your teeth sensitive to hot and cold.
  • Mouth problems. 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.
  • 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.
  • "Bulimia face."Swollen salivary glands from too much throwing up can make your face and neck look puffy.
  • Hoarse voice. When you vomit often, stomach acid may irritate your vocal cords and affect your voice.
  • 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.
  • Hair, skin, and nail problems. When you don't get enough nutrients, your hair, nails, and skin sometimes get dry. Your hair and nails may break off easily, and your hair can thin out. Vomiting might cause small broken veins on your face, red areas around your mouth, or a purple rash.
  • Pancreatitis. This is an inflammation of the pancreas that can cause pain, nausea, and vomiting. Either malnutrition or purging can cause it.
  • Difficulties during pregnancy. Bulimia raises your risk for having a miscarriage or a C-section. It also makes it more likely that your baby will be born prematurely, be small, or have a birth defect. And it increases the odds that you'll have depression after the baby is born.

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

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Irritability
  • Moodiness
  • Self-harm (such as cutting)
  • Obsessive-compulsive behaviors
  • Guilt, shame, or embarrassment
  • 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.