Bulimia Nervosa: Symptoms, Causes, and Great Treatments

Bulimia nervosa, commonly called bulimia, is a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder. People with bulimia may secretly binge — eating large amounts of food with a loss of control over the eating — and then purge, trying to get rid of the extra calories in an unhealthy way.

What are the symptoms of bulimia nervosa?

The most common symptoms of bulimia include:

  • long-term fear of gaining weight
  • comments about being fat
  • preoccupation with weight and body
  • a strongly negative self-image
  • binge eating
  • forceful vomiting
  • overuse of laxatives or diuretics
  • use of supplements or herbs for weight loss
  • excessive exercise
  • stained teeth (from stomach acid)
  • calluses on the back of the hands
  • going to the bathroom immediately after meals
  • not eating in front of others
  • withdrawal from normal social activities

Complications from bulimia can include:

  • kidney failure
  • heart problems
  • gum disease
  • tooth decay
  • digestive issues or constipation
  • dehydration
  • nutrient deficiencies
  • electrolyte or chemical imbalances

Women may experience the absence of a menstrual period. Also, anxiety, depression, and drug or alcohol abuse can be common in people with bulimia.

Bulimia Nervosa Causes and Risk Factors

We don’t know the exact cause of bulimia. But research suggests that a mixture of certain personality traits, emotions, and thinking patterns, as well as biological and environmental factors, might be responsible.

Researchers believe this eating disorder may begin with dissatisfaction with your body and extreme concern with your size and shape. Usually, you have low self-esteem and fear becoming overweight. The fact that bulimia tends to run in families also suggests that you might inherit a risk for the disorder.

Other risk factors include:

  • Being female
  • Depression and anxiety disorders
  • Substance use disorders
  • Traumatic events
  • Stress
  • Frequent dieting

How is bulimia nervosa treated?

Treatment focuses not just on food and nutrition education but also mental health treatment. It requires development of a healthy view of the self and a healthy relationship with food. Treatment options include:

  • antidepressants, like fluoxetine (Prozac), which is the only antidepressant approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat bulimia
  • psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, can include cognitive behavioral therapy, family-based therapy, and interpersonal psychotherapy
  • dietitian support and nutrition education, which means learning about healthy eating habits, forming a nutritious meal plan, and possibly a controlled weight loss program
  • treatment for complications, which may include hospitalization for severe cases of bulimia

Successful treatment usually involves an antidepressant, psychotherapy, and a collaborative approach between your doctor, mental healthcare provider, and family and friends.

Some eating disorder treatment facilities offer live-in or day treatment programs. Patients participating in live-in programs at treatment facilities receive around-the-clock support and care.

Patients can take classes, attend therapy, and eat nutritious meals. They may also practice gentle yoga to increase body awareness.

Bulimia can be life threatening if it’s left untreated or if treatment fails. Bulimia is both a physical and psychological condition, and it may be a lifelong challenge to control it.
However, bulimia can be overcome with successful treatment. The earlier bulimia is detected the more effective treatment will be.
Effective treatments focus on food, self-esteem, problem solving, coping skills, and mental health. These treatments help patients maintain healthy behaviors in the long-term

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