Bulimia nervosa, also called bulimia, is a psychological eating disorder that is characterized by episodes of binge eating (consuming a large quantity of food in one sitting). That's accompanied by no sense of control over eating behavior and followed by inappropriate methods for trying to lose weight, such as vomiting, fasting, enemas, excessive use of laxatives and diuretics, or compulsive exercising.
Bulimia tends to develop late in childhood or in early adulthood. It affects females more often than males. People with bulimia often perform the behaviors in secret, feeling disgusted and ashamed when they binge, yet relieved once they purge. People with bulimia usually weigh within the normal range for their age and height. However, they may fear gaining weight, have desire to lose weight, and may feel intensely dissatisfied with their bodies.
What Causes Bulimia Nervosa?
The exact cause of bulimia is not known, but research suggests that a combination of certain personality traits, emotions, and thinking patterns, as well as biological and environmental factors might be responsible. Researchers also believe that this eating disorder may begin with a dissatisfaction of the person's body and extreme concern with body size and shape. Usually individuals suffering from bulimia have low self-esteem and fear becoming overweight. The fact that bulimia tends to run in families also suggests that a susceptibility to the disorder might be inherited.
What Are the Symptoms of Bulimia Nervosa?
Symptoms of bulimia may include:
- Eating uncontrollably followed by purging
- Vomiting or abusing laxatives or diuretics in an attempt to lose weight
- Using the bathroom frequently after meals
- Excessive exercising
- Preoccupation with body weight
- Dental problems
- Sore throat
- Depression or mood swings
- Feeling out of control
- Swollen glands in neck and face
- Heartburn, indigestion, bloating
- Irregular periods
- Weakness, exhaustion, bloodshot eyes
Complications of bulimia may include:
- Erosion of tooth enamel because of repeated exposure to acidic gastric contents
- Dental cavities
- Tooth sensitivity to hot or cold food
- Swelling and soreness in the salivary glands (from repeated vomiting)
- Stomach ulcers
- Ruptures of the stomach and esophagus
- Disruption in the normal bowel release function
- Irregular heartbeat
- Heart attack (in severe cases)
- Lower libido (sex drive)
- Higher risk for suicidal behavior
How Is Bulimia Treated?
Bulimia treatment requires the consideration of the physical as well as the psychological needs of the person. Treatment may include psychological counseling and medications. The antidepressant fluoxetine (Prozac) is FDA-approved for the treatment of bulimia, and doctors sometimes recommend other antidepressants or types of medicines. In many cases, treatment is undertaken by a team of medical, nutritional, and mental health professionals. The ideal outcome of treatment is to restore physical health and normal eating patterns.
What Is the Outlook for People With Bulimia?
Bulimia is a condition that is difficult to cure. Many people improve, but relapses may recur from time to time in some cases. In addition, some people who are considered "cured" continue with less-than-normal eating patterns throughout their lives. In general, however, the outlook for people with bulimia is more positive than the outlook for people with anorexia, another eating disorder.
Can Bulimia Be Prevented?
Because the true reason for the development of bulimia is not known, it is difficult to say how bulimia can be prevented. However, we live in a society where the "ideal" woman portrayed by the media is far from realistic. Educators and parents can help young people to put that "ideal" picture into perspective. Adolescents should be encouraged to understand that appropriate body weight does not equal extreme thinness.
When Should I Seek Help for Bulimia?
If you or any member of your family develops an unhealthy preoccupation with weight and size and/or appears unduly interested in food, you should consult a health care professional. The earlier treatment is received the better the chances for a successful outcome.