What is bulimia?
Bulimia nervosa, most often known as just ‘bulimia’, is an eating disorder and mental illness. It is characterised by repeated binge-eating episodes with attempts to get rid of the calories consumed to prevent weight gain. These attempts to get rid of calories is known as purging and usually includes vomiting or using laxatives, but excessive exercise or taking large quantities of slimming pills are also purging behaviours. Bulimia is a dangerous illness that aims to control weight.
Control is a central aspect of bulimia. The binge-eating and purging cycle can help a sufferer feel in control of their life, which would otherwise feel out of control. Although a person with bulimia may feel out of control during a binge-eating episode, the purging provides the control element. Purging can therefore be a way for the bulimia sufferer to regulate and manage their feelings – it becomes useful for them.
Someone who has been living with bulimia for a long time can find it difficult to stop their purging behaviour as it has become commonplace. When they are triggered emotionally or when they feel their stomach full, their learned response is to purge. It can become addictive in nature. Feeling full or sometimes eating more than usual are normal aspects of eating. For someone with bulimia, they can be very difficult to deal with.
Which eating disorder?
It can sometimes be difficult to determine which eating disorder somebody is suffering with. If a person is very underweight but experiences episodes of binge-eating and purging, they would tend to be diagnosed with anorexia. This diagnosis would be less clear if the person was only slightly underweight. An eating disorder specialist would best determine which eating disorder a person is suffering with, which would enable the best course of treatment to then be followed. It is not uncommon for someone to move between eating disorders, highlighting the complexity of these illnesses and the difficulty of treatment and recovery.
The effects of bulimia
Like other eating disorders, there are serious physical and emotional effects on the person living with bulimia and these can be life-threatening. In terms of the physical effects, vomiting can cause tooth decay, burst blood vessels in the eyes, damage vocal cords due to stomach acid, and cause pain and swelling in the mouth and throat. Frequent vomiting can damage the digestive tract, such as causing tears in the oesophagus and other digestive problems including bloating, diarrhoea or constipation. Abusing diuretics that lower potassium levels can cause dehydration, which can lead to kidney damage and kidney failure.
There are many other physical effects of bulimia, but one of the most serious complications of this eating disorder is cardiovascular problems caused by an electrolyte imbalance. Such complications can result in abnormal heart rhythms and even heart failure.
The psychological impact of bulimia is significant and those suffering should seek support with the emotional turmoil of the illness. Feelings of shame, guilt and a skewed body image are often experienced by people with bulimia and these drive the binge-eating and purging cycle. Low self-esteem, low self-confidence and a fear of weight gain are major aspects to the illness as well.
A lot of stress and anxiety is also a part of bulimia, particularly around mealtimes. The illness is very secretive in nature because people with bulimia can feel ashamed of their binge-eating and purging behaviours. Carrying the burden of the illness alone can intensify feelings of stress and anxiety.
Support for people living with bulimia
Anyone can suffer with bulimia, irrespective of age, sex, race, lifestyle or background. It most often develops in women during adolescence, but this is not the rule. You may be questioning whether you have bulimia or another eating disorder. If you worry a lot about eating, food and your weight and feel that they are taking over your life, it would be worth seeking help.
Less than half of people with bulimia will make a full recovery. This statistic shows how important seeking help for bulimia is, as recovery is very difficult, particularly without support. Psychological support can help someone with bulimia to understand their relationship with food and eating, and seeks to help them to rebuild a new, healthier relationship with food, weight and themselves. This can involve looking into a person’s sense of self to increase their self-worth and find new ways of feeling in control, without resorting to dangerous eating disorder behaviours. It is a very challenging journey, but an important one for anyone looking to recover from a life ruled by bulimia.