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Home > Patient & Family Resources > Health Library > Bulimia Nervosa
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Bulimia (say "boo-LEE-mee-uh") is a type of eating disorder. People with bulimia will eat a larger amount of food than most people would in a similar situation, in a short period of time (binge). Then, in order to prevent weight gain, they will do something to get rid of the food (purge). They may vomit, exercise too much, or use medicines like laxatives.
People who have bulimia judge themselves harshly on their body weight and shape. In order to help them cope with these feelings, they follow a strict diet to try to lose weight. But over time the hunger from the strict diet triggers them to binge eat. After binge eating, they feel out of control, ashamed, guilty, and afraid of gaining weight. This distress causes them to purge, in hopes of "undoing" any possible weight gain from the binge.
Without treatment, this "binge and purge" cycle can lead to serious, long-term health problems. Acid in the mouth from vomiting can cause tooth decay, gum disease, and loss of tooth enamel. Any type of purging can lead to bone thinning (osteoporosis), kidney damage, heart problems, or even death.
If you or someone you know has bulimia or another eating disorder, get help. Eating disorders can be dangerous. And willpower alone is not enough to overcome them. Treatment can help a person who has an eating disorder feel better and be healthier.
All eating disorders are complex problems, and experts do not really know what causes them. But they may be caused by a mix of family history, social factors, and personality traits. You may be more likely to have bulimia if:
Bulimia is most common in:
While bulimia often starts in the teen years, it usually lasts into adulthood and is a long-term disorder.
People with bulimia:
Any one of these can be a sign of an eating disorder that needs treatment.
Bulimia is different from anorexia nervosa, another eating disorder. People who have anorexia eat so little that they become extremely thin. People who have bulimia may not be thin. They may be a normal size. They may binge in secret and deny that they are purging. This makes it hard for others to know that a person with bulimia has a serious problem.
If you are concerned about someone, look for the following signs. A person may have bulimia if he or she:
Bulimia can be treated with psychological counseling and sometimes medicines, such as antidepressants. The sooner treatment is started, the better. Getting treatment early can make recovery easier and prevent serious health problems.
By working with a counselor, a person with bulimia can learn to feel better about herself. She can learn to eat normally again and stop purging.
Other mental health problems such as depression often happen with bulimia. If a person has another condition along with bulimia, more treatment may be needed, and it may take longer to get better.
Eating disorders can take a long time to overcome. And it is common to fall back into unhealthy ways of eating. If you are having problems, don't try to handle them on your own. Get help.
It can be very scary to realize that someone you care about has an eating disorder. If you think a friend or loved one has bulimia, you can help.
The cause of bulimia is not clear, but it probably results from a combination of genetics, family behaviors, social values (such as admiring thinness), and other things that can put someone at risk (such as perfectionism).
Your risk for bulimia increases if your parent, sister, or brother has the condition. But family history may be only part of the cause.
Stressful life events such as moving, divorce, or the death of a loved one can trigger bulimia in some people.
Many young women, such as those in college or high school, have unhealthy attitudes toward eating and toward their bodies. Socially, they may accept and encourage destructive behaviors like extreme dieting or binge eating and purging. These beliefs and behaviors are not normal or healthy. They can play a part in developing eating disorders that need treatment. Women who begin to severely restrict their diets in order to lose weight are at risk for bulimia.
Bulimia, like all eating disorders, is a complex physical and psychological condition. Recovery requires treatment that helps you change your behavior and also deals with the deeper attitudes and feelings that cause you to binge and purge.
Symptoms of bulimia include:
Any of the above symptoms can be a sign of bulimia or another eating disorder that needs treatment. If you or someone you know has any of these symptoms, talk to a doctor, friend, or family member about your concerns right away.
Bulimia and other eating disorders can be hard to diagnose, because people often keep unhealthy thoughts and behaviors secret and may deny that they have a problem. Often a person won't get evaluation and treatment until someone else notices the signs of bulimia and encourages the person to seek the help that he or she needs.
Common signs that a person may have bulimia are when the person:
Conditions that commonly occur with bulimia, such as depression, substance use disorder, or anxiety disorders, can make treatment of bulimia harder. Recovery from bulimia can take a long time. And relapse is common. If the person feels extremely discouraged, be sure to tell the doctor immediately so that the person can get immediate help.
In some cases, people who have an eating disorder may feel suicidal.
If you or someone you know shows warning signs of suicide, seek help immediately.
Bulimia is different from anorexia. People with anorexia have an extremely low body weight. But most people with bulimia are in their normal weight range. Some people who have anorexia make themselves vomit, but this is a different eating disorder. For more information, see the topic Anorexia Nervosa.
When you have bulimia, you judge yourself harshly on your body weight and shape. In order to help cope with these feelings, you follow a strict diet to try to lose weight. But over time, the hunger from your diet triggers you to binge eat. Binge eating may also be triggered by a stressful event, when food gives you a sense of comfort. Feeling guilty and ashamed of binge eating can cause you to purge to avoid weight gain. This starts the cycle of binging and purging that becomes a habit.
As bulimia develops, you may not eat at the beginning of the day. But later you may binge to comfort yourself, especially at the end of a stressful day.
Vomiting causes the body to release endorphins, which are natural chemicals that make you feel good. Eventually you may make yourself vomit even if you have not overeaten so that you can feel good. Soon you lose control over the binge-purge cycle. Repeated vomiting, fasting, exercising too much, or misusing laxatives, diuretics, ipecac syrup, or enemas will eventually cause serious, long-term health problems.
After bulimia becomes a pattern, it is very hard to return to normal eating without help. Unhealthy eating behaviors can continue for many years before a person seeks treatment.
If not treated, bulimia can lead to serious, long-term health problems. It is common for people to hide the condition from others for years. By the time others discover the disorder, many people with bulimia already have serious problems. These range from mild to severe, depending on the type of purging behaviors and how long they have continued. Health problems caused by bulimia include:
Overuse of medicine (such as ipecac syrup) to cause vomiting can lead to diarrhea, weakness, low blood pressure, chest pain, and trouble breathing. A person can die from prolonged overuse of these medicines.
Other mental health problems often occur along with bulimia, which may make treatment take longer or make bulimia harder to treat.footnote 1 These conditions include:
Although bulimia is a long-term disorder linked to serious health problems, it can be successfully treated. Most people who seek treatment for bulimia get better. Many people with bulimia recover completely with treatment.
Although treatment is usually successful, bulimia is a long-term disorder, and setbacks can occur. A return of symptoms (relapse) might happen. But with ongoing treatment and patience, most people can eventually overcome bulimia.
Bulimia among teens with type 1 diabetes is becoming more common. These teens often lose weight before their diabetes is discovered, then quickly gain weight when treatment begins. Some learn that they can lose weight by skipping insulin doses. This causes poor control of their diabetes and can result in serious problems that can lead to blindness or kidney failure.
The risk for bulimia or another eating disorder is greatest if a person:footnote 2
Call your doctor immediately if you or someone you care about has been diagnosed with bulimia and now:
Call your doctor to discuss bulimia if you or someone you care about:
Taking a wait-and-see approach (called watchful waiting) is not appropriate if you think you or someone you know may have an eating disorder. Call a doctor or an eating disorder hotline to discuss your concerns and learn what you can do to help.
Bulimia may be diagnosed and treated by the following health professionals:
There is no single test that can diagnose bulimia or any other eating disorder. But these illnesses may have a visible effect on your health and eating habits.
If your doctor thinks that you may have an eating disorder, he or she will check you for signs of problems caused by your diet and purging, such as malnutrition or electrolyte imbalances. He or she also may ask questions about your mental well-being. It is common for another mental health problem (such as depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder) to play a part in an eating disorder.
Common exams and tests for a possible eating disorder include:
A person can have bulimia and be underweight, average weight, or overweight. Most people with bulimia are in their normal weight range. Many binge in secret and deny that they may have a problem. These factors can make bulimia hard to diagnose.
People with bulimia often seek medical care for related health concerns, such as fatigue or stomach problems caused by repeated vomiting.
Early, accurate diagnosis and treatment of bulimia can decrease the chances of long-term health problems and even death in severe cases. Unfortunately, there is no routine screening for eating disorders. It is common for a person with bulimia to try to hide symptoms, which can make it hard to detect. Most often a loved one thinks that there is a problem and seeks help for bulimia. It is common for a person to have bulimia for a long time and to develop serious health problems before anyone realizes that the person has the disorder.
Treatment for bulimia involves psychological counseling and sometimes medicines such as antidepressants. Treatment does not usually require staying in the hospital, although this is sometimes needed. Both professional counseling and antidepressant medicine can help reduce episodes of binging and purging and help you recover from bulimia. Both are long-term treatments that may require weeks or months before you notice significant results. You may need treatment with counseling and possibly medicines for more than a year.
Bulimia that occurs with another condition may take longer to treat. And you may need more than one type of treatment. If you have another condition that commonly occurs with bulimia, such as depression or substance use disorder, your doctor may want to treat that condition first.
People who seek treatment for bulimia or another eating disorder may have other health problems caused by the disorder. If you have had bulimia for a long time without treatment, or if you have used substances such as laxatives, diuretics, or ipecac syrup to purge, then you may have a health problem such as dehydration that needs treatment first. In serious cases, these conditions related to bulimia may require you to spend time in the hospital.
Initial treatment depends how severe the bulimia is and how long you have had it.
If you have no other conditions that need treatment first, then treatment for bulimia usually consists of:
The goals of CBT are:
The goals of IPT are:
Continuing treatment will depend on the how long you have had bulimia and how severe it is. Continuing treatment usually consists of:
If you develop other health problems such as dehydration or an esophageal tear because of bulimia, you may need to stay in the hospital or in an eating disorder treatment facility.
Sometimes people with bulimia get discouraged because recovery can take a long time and relapse is common. If you or the person with bulimia feels very discouraged or feels suicidal, call a doctor or other health professional immediately to get help.
Treatment with an antidepressant medicine alone may not be enough. Antidepressants work best when combined with psychological counseling.footnote 3
Eating disorders are hard to treat. Recovery may take months to years. The sooner treatment begins, the better the chance for a full recovery.
Unfortunately, many people don't seek treatment for mental health problems. You may not seek treatment because you think the symptoms are not bad enough or that you can work things out on your own. But getting treatment is important.
If you need help deciding whether to see your doctor, read about some reasons why people don't get help and how to overcome them.
There is no known way to prevent bulimia. Early treatment may be the best way to prevent the disorder from progressing. Knowing the signs of bulimia and seeking immediate medical care can help prevent long-term health problems caused by bulimia.
There are many ways that adults can help children and teens develop a healthy view of themselves and learn to approach food and exercise with a positive attitude. Doing this may prevent some children and teens from developing this disorder.
Home treatment is very important for people who have bulimia. You will set individual goals along with your doctor, registered dietitian, and professional counselor. Some of these goals may include:
Family members will also need to support the person's goals for healing. Learning about the disorder will be helpful for the entire family. Also, show support of a loved one who has bulimia. Offer support if the person gets discouraged about how long treatment is taking. Listen to his or her feelings.
Medicines such as antidepressants may reduce the frequency of the binge-purge episodes of bulimia. They may also be used to treat other mental health problems, such as depression, that often occur along with bulimia. And you may need antacids to decrease stomach acid or bulk laxatives such as Citrucel to replace the overuse of more harsh laxatives.
Antidepressants are used to reduce the frequency of binge-purge cycles and treat any related depression or anxiety.
Sometimes several antidepressant medicines are tried before finding the one that works best. Treatment with medicines is more effective when combined with psychological counseling, which includes nutritional counseling.footnote 4
There is no surgical treatment for bulimia.
In addition to cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT), several types of counseling may be useful in treating eating disorders. Other therapies that may be helpful include:
Organized programs that provide self-help materials, such as manuals or computer-based activities, may be useful in treating eating disorders. But most people who have an eating disorder also need counseling and possibly medicine.
Although it isn't part of the treatment of bulimia, relieving stress can help during recovery. Techniques for managing stress include:
Gwirtsman HE, et al. (2008). Eating disorders. In MH Ebert et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment in Psychiatry, 2nd ed., pp. 456–469. New York: McGraw-Hill.
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Feeding and eating disorders. In Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed., pp. 329–354. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
Yager J, et al. (August 2012). Guideline Watch: Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Patients With Eating Disorders, 3rd ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association. Also available online: http://psychiatryonline.org/content.aspx?bookid=28&sectionid=39113853.
Steering Committee on Practice Guidelines, American Psychiatric Association (2006). Treating Eating Disorders: A Quick Reference Guide. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Other Works Consulted
American Academy of Pediatrics (2010). Clinical report: Identification and management of eating disorders in children and adolescents. Pediatrics, 126(6): 1240–1253.
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Bulimia nervosa. In Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed., pp. 345–350. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
Anderson AE, Yager J (2009). Eating disorders. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 1, pp. 2128–2149. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Hay PPJ, et al. (2009). Psychological treatments for bulimia nervosa and binging. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (4).
Mitchell JE, et al. (2013). Biological therapies for eating disorders. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 46(5): 470–477.
Sadock BJ, et al. ( 2007). Bulimia nervosa and eating disorder not otherwise specified. In Kaplan and Sadock's Synopsis of Psychiatry, Behavioral Sciences/Clinical Psychiatry, 10th ed., pp. 735–739. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Sadock BJ, Sadock VA (2010). Eating disorders. In Kaplan and Sadock's Pocket Handbook of Clinical Psychiatry, 5th ed., pp. 259–268. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Yager J, et al. (August 2012). Guideline Watch: Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Patients With Eating Disorders, 3rd ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association. Also available online: http://psychiatryonline.org/content.aspx?bookid=28§ionid=39113853.
Current as of:
September 23, 2020
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: Kathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineW. Stewart Agras MD, FRCPC - Psychiatry
Current as of: September 23, 2020
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & W. Stewart Agras MD, FRCPC - Psychiatry
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