What is Bulimia?
Bulimia is an eating disorder that can lead to serious consequences for an impacted individual’s physical, mental and emotional health. Characterised by repeated episodes of binge eating followed by purging, alongside other behaviours to compensate for an excessive intake of calories, bulimia affects an estimated 120,000 Australian adults as our country’s most common eating disorder. Bulimia nervosa treatment is likely required in order for the affected individual to make a sustainable recovery.
Bulimia’s symptoms can cause great disruptions to everyday life for an individual struggling with this disorder. With a wide range of physical, mental and emotional symptoms, bulimia may lead to chronic long-term health conditions or even a risk of death if left untreated.
Its physical symptoms include:
- Repeated episodes of binge eating (where large amounts of food are consumed in a short period of time)
- Self-induced vomiting to ‘purge’ the food consumed during the binge
- The abuse of laxatives or diuretics
- Dehydration or electrolyte imbalances as a side effect of constant purging
- Sore throats, damaged teeth or damaged gums from repeated and frequent vomiting
- Gastrointestinal issues like acid reflux, bloating, and constipation
- Changes in body weight related to bingeing and purging
Mental symptoms may include:
- A consistent and disruptive preoccupation with food and an obsession with weight that can lead to difficulties in concentrating on anything else
- Fear of losing control when eating
- Shame or guilt after eating
- Distress or anxiety when unable to engage in bingeing or purging behaviours
- Low self-esteem and negative relationships to body image
Alongside these physical and mental symptoms, bulimia can also lead to depression, anxiety or mood swings, social withdrawal associated with guilt around eating, and avoiding activities that involve food.
The exact cause of bulimia is unknown. As with many other mental health conditions and eating disorders, research points to a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors that may contribute to the development of bulimia.
For individuals with a history of trauma or abuse, a family history of eating disorders, and the experience of cultural pressure to reach a certain body shape or size, the risk of bulimia increases.
Bulimia is a complex mental health and eating disorder, with several risk factors contributing to a person’s likelihood of developing this condition.
Women are more likely than men to develop bulimia, with onset typically occurring during adolescence or early adulthood. A history of other mental health conditions (including depression and anxiety) can also increase the risk of bulimia developing.
Risk factors for bulimia include:
- Gender – with women more likely than men to experience bulimia
- Age – adolescence or early adulthood contributing to increases in bulimia risk
- Mental health history – other mental health conditions may increase the risk of developing bulimia
- Family history – a family member with an eating disorder can contribute to an increased risk
- Social pressure to conform to specific body standards
- Trauma or abuse
- A perfectionistic personality type
Individuals with bulimia are likely to experience short- and long-term complications related to the eating disorder. Although some of these may resolve with treatment for the disorder’s behaviours, complications may continue after chronic purging behaviours have stopped. It’s important to work closely with medical professionals to minimise the risk of ongoing complications if you have a history of bulimia or bulimic behaviours.
Complications may include:
- Digestive complications – including issues with the gastrointestinal tract, and the potential for bloody stools, diarrhoea, haemorrhoids, the potential for rectal prolapse, severe constipation, esophageal bleeding or rupture, or stomach rupture
- Dental complications – with stomach acid continually wearing away at tooth enamel, potentially leading to tooth loss, reduced saliva flow rates, hypersensitivity, gum disease or dry mouth
- Throat complications – including difficulty swallowing, chronic coughing, indigestion, or esophageal cancer
- Cardiac complications – such as an increased heart rate, abnormal heart rhythms, potentially fatal heart rhythms, congestive heart failure, or sudden cardiac death
- Reproductive complications – including an increased risk of miscarriage, premature birth, low birth weight, birth defects, or stillbirths
- Complications with skin, hair and nails – including rough, dry, itchy skin, sudden hair loss, or callus formations
- Emotional and mental health complications – such as anxiety, depression, postpartum depression, substance use, low self-esteem and relationship issues
While no guaranteed method exists to prevent bulimia, there are a number of preventative steps that can help to reduce the risk of developing this disorder.
The promotion of positive body images is crucial in reducing societal pressures on vulnerable young women. As women in their formative years are at increased risk of developing bulimia, focusing on positive body image messages and reducing exposure to negative body image messages can powerfully contribute to eating disorder risk reductions.
Building healthy eating habits can also be a preventative lifestyle tool that can reduce the risk of bulimic behaviours. Crucially, seeking help for bulimia’s emotional or psychological issues when their symptoms first arise can also divert a potential eating disorder from developing in the future.
By familiarising yourself with the symptoms and risk factors of bulimia, you can identify if you may need to reach out for compassionate, care-filled support to aid your recovery.
You may require a combination of treatments to achieve bulimia recovery. A combination of psychotherapy, medications, nutrition education and physical therapies may be needed to overcome the damage this disorder can cause.
Treatments may include:
- Psychotherapy – this is a key component in treating bulimia, with cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) both offering effective forms of treatment. CBT can be useful in identifying the negative thoughts and beliefs that provide the foundation for bingeing and purging behaviours, while DBT can assist in emotion management and the development of effective coping skills.
- Medication – some antidepressant medications may be prescribed to help treat the symptoms of bulimia, as anxiety and depression are often common conditions for individuals with this eating disorder.
- Nutritional counselling – this is a significant part of any bulimia recovery journey. A qualified dietitian will work with the individual to build healthy, balanced meal plans, educating them about appropriate nutrition and supporting them in developing healthy eating habits.
- Inpatient or residential treatment – depending on the severity of the bulimia, some individuals may require inpatient or residential treatment. Here, patients receive 24-hour medical and psychiatric care, which can be a powerful step towards breaking the bulimia cycle and building a foundation for ongoing recovery.
How can we help?
At Hope In Health, you’ll find the highest quality of bulimia treatment with our compassionate, holistic approach to genuine transformation.
Our comprehensive treatments can offer individuals with bulimia the opportunity to recover from this debilitating and life-threatening mental health disorder. Our expert practitioners will work with you to develop a personalised bulimia therapy treatment plan grounded in your unique needs and recovery goals.