Dispelling common questions about bulimia

18.08.2021 - Eating disorders

bulimia infographic

Bulimia (or bulimia nervosa)

is a severe mental illness and eating disorder.

People with bulimia have problems when it comes to controlling their intake of food, which can lead to severe health issues. Typically, a person with bulimia may suddenly eat large quantities of food (also called bingeing) and then attempt to compensate for that overeating by vomiting, taking laxatives or diuretics, fasting, or exercising excessively (also called purging). Bulimia can affect anyone of any age, gender, ethnicity or background. 

Seeking unique treatment and therapy at the earliest possible stage will offer the most significant possibility for prompt and sustained recovery from bulimia. 

What are the most common symptoms of bulimia?

Different people may have various symptoms of bulimia. You may notice changes in both the person’s body and behaviour. Early signs of bulimia can differ from person to person.

Behavioural symptoms of bulimia include the following:

  • Eating substantial amounts of food in a short space of time.
  • Making yourself vomit, either by using laxatives or by over-exercising to lose weight
  • Developing a heightened fear of putting on weight
  • Acting and thinking very critically about your weight and body shape
  • Unpredictable mood changes – i.e., feeling overly tense or anxious.

Physical symptoms of bulimia can include:

  • Dental problems
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen glands in your neck and face 
  • Heartburn, indigestion, bloating Irregular periods 
  • Weakness, exhaustion, bloodshot eyes 
  • Calluses on your knuckles or backs of your hands from making yourself vomit
  • Gaining and losing weight often. 
  • Dizziness or fainting and feeling cold all the time 
  • Sleep problems 
  • Dry skin, dry and brittle nails

What are some of the common core causes of bulimia?

Even though a considerable body of research has carefully examined the possible risk factors associated with eating disorders, researchers have failed to uncover the exact origin of eating disorders or understand the interaction between different causes of eating disorders. 

This failure may be due to the complexities of eating disorders, limitations of the studies or a combination of two factors.

Research suggests that a mixture of certain personality traits, emotions, and thinking patterns, as well as biological and environmental factors, might be responsible. 

Some researchers described how considerable evidence suggests that altered serotonin levels in the brain can lead to “dysregulation of appetite, mood, and impulse control”. 

Other researchers believe this eating disorder may begin with dissatisfaction with your body and extreme concern with your size and shape. People living with bulimia often exhibit low self-esteem and fear becoming overweight more than other people. 

The fact that bulimia tends to be shared in families also suggests that genetics play a role in the disorder. Data from twin studies estimate that heredity accounts for 30-80% of eating disorders. 

So to summarise, the most common causes may include:

  • You or a member of your family has a history of eating disorders, depression, or substance addiction 
  • You have been criticised for your eating habits, body shape or weight 
  • You’re overly concerned with being slim, particularly if you also feel pressure from society or your job 
  • You have anxiety, low self-esteem or an obsessive personality 
  • You have been sexually abused

It’s also worth noting that women are three times more likely than men to be diagnosed with bulimia.

When is bulimia out of control? What are the complications?

There are many medical complications associated with bulimia nervosa. These complications are often a direct result of the frequency of purging behaviours. 

Some common complications are listed below:

  • Erosion of tooth enamel because of repeated exposure to stomach acid 
  • Dental cavities, tooth sensitivity and other dental issues
  • Swelling and soreness in your salivary glands (from repeated vomiting) 
  • Stomach ulcers 
  • Ruptures of your stomach or oesophagus 
  • Irregular bowel movements
  • Dehydration 
  • Irregular heartbeat 
  • Heart attack (in severe cases) 
  • Lower sex drive
  • Increased risk for suicidal behaviour or self-harm
  • Alcohol or drug misuse 
  • Gastroparesis, in which your stomach takes too long to digest food

Are bulimia and anorexia the same?

While anorexia and bulimia are both eating disorders and can have similar symptoms, such as distorted body image—they’re characterised by different food-related behaviours

People who have anorexia severely reduce their food intake to lose weight, while people living with bulimia eat an excessive amount of food in a short period, then purge or use other methods to prevent weight gain.

Although eating disorders aren’t specific to age or gender, women are disproportionately affected by them. About 1% of all American women will develop anorexia, and 1.5% will develop bulimia, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD). The numbers are very similar in the United Kingdom. 

Is bulimia curable?

Bulimia and eating disorders, in general, are particularly tough to cure. Physicians tend to use the word treatable rather than curable when discussing with patients. 

Many people recover or improve, but some may relapse from time to time. In addition, some people who are considered “cured” continue with less-than-normal eating patterns throughout their lives. 

Research suggests that around 45% of bulimia patients fully recover, 27% improve considerably, and 23% remain chronically ill. 

Our unique approach to bulimia treatment is discreet, non-judgemental and confidential. We look beyond the surface issues to identify and treat the true underlying causes and give you the greatest chance of long-term recovery. 

To find out more about bulimia treatment or to see if you think you might have a problem, take the self-test on our website. 

How common is it to relapse after bulimia treatment?

Relapse rates for clients successfully treated for bulimia nervosa range from 31% to 44% during the first two years of recovery.

However a brief lapse is a minor symptom, while a relapse refers to frequent binge-eating or purging.

Research has shown that adverse stressful life events, notably higher work stress (e.g. severe difficulties at work, being laid off or fired) and higher social pressure (e.g. separated or lost a friend), increase the likelihood of relapse.