Bulimia is an eating disorder and mental health condition. Men and women of any age can get bulimia, but it's most common in young women and typically begins in the mid to late teens. If you think you may have bulimia, see your GP as soon as you can.
People who have bulimia go through periods where they eat a lot of food in a very short amount of time (binge eating) and then make themselves sick.
They use laxatives (medication to help them poo) or do too much exercise, or a combination of these, to try to stop themselves gaining weight.
Symptoms of bulimia
Symptoms of bulimia include:
- eating very large amounts of food in a short time, often in an out-of-control way – this is called binge eating
- making yourself vomit, using laxatives, or doing an extreme amount of exercise after a binge to avoid putting on weight – this is called purging
- fear of putting on weight
- being very critical about your weight and body shape
- mood changes – for example, feeling very tense or anxious
These symptoms may not be easy to spot in someone else because bulimia can make people behave very secretively.
Getting help for bulimia
Getting help and support as soon as possible gives you the best chance of recovering from bulimia.
If you think you may have bulimia, see your GP as soon as you can.
They'll ask you questions about your eating habits and how you're feeling. They will also check your overall health and weight.
If they think you may have bulimia or another eating disorder, they should refer you to an eating disorder specialist or team of specialists.
It can be very hard to admit you have a problem and ask for help. It may make things easier if you bring a friend or loved one with you to your appointment.
You may also want to seek advice from an eating disorder support group such as Eating Disorders Association NI.
Getting help for someone else
If you're concerned that a family member or friend may have bulimia, let them know you're worried about them and encourage them to see their GP.
You could offer to go along with them.
Treatment for bulimia
You can recover from bulimia. It may take time and recovery will be different for everyone.
The main treatments for bulimia include:
- guided self-help programmes
- a type of talking therapy called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – in group sessions or individual (one-on-one) sessions
Health risks of bulimia
Bulimia can eventually lead to physical problems associated with not getting the right nutrients, vomiting a lot, or overusing laxatives.
Possible complications include:
- feeling tired and weak
- dental problems – stomach acid from persistent vomiting can damage tooth enamel and also cause bad breath, a sore throat, or even tears in the lining of the throat
- irregular or absent periods
- dry skin and hair
- brittle fingernails
- swollen glands
- fits and muscle spasms
- heart, kidney or bowel problems, including permanent constipation
- bone problems – you may be more likely to develop problems such as osteoporosis, particularly if you have had symptoms of both bulimia and anorexia
Causes of bulimia
It is not known what causes bulimia and other eating disorders.
You may be more likely to get an eating disorder if:
- you or a member of your family has a history of eating disorders, depression, or alcohol or drug 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 (for example, ballet dancers, jockeys, models or athletes)
- you have anxiety, low self-esteem, an obsessive personality, or are a perfectionist
- you have been sexually abused
Bulimia is often a vicious cycle of binging and purging, triggered by things such as hunger, sadness or stress.
If you have bulimia you may set very strict rules for yourself about dieting, eating or exercising.
Failing to keep to these then leads to periods of eating too much and loss of control (binge eating), after which you feel guilty or ashamed.
You would then purge to get rid of the calories, leaving you feeling hungry again, and the cycle continues.
More useful links
The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.
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