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Bulimia: The signs, symptoms and treatment

Learn more about bulimia and the treatment options available


Written by SpunOut | View this authors Twitter page and posted in health


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Bulimia, or Bulimia Nervosais an eating disorder that involves binge eating (eating a lot of food in one go) and then feeling guilty or trying to compensate for the binge by getting it out of the body as quickly as possible or finding  other ways to make up for it.

This might involve feeling a need to get rid of the food immediately by vomiting up the food or by using laxatives, diuretics or other medication to purge the food. It could also involve starving after a binge or using heavy exercise to burn off the calories.

A person with bulimia might be a normal weight, or their weight goes up and down. This makes bulimia less noticeable than anorexia and it can go untreated for longer. Many people with bulimia try to hide the illness because of guilt or shame.

What causes bulimia?

Bulimia does not necessarily have one single cause. Sometimes a person might develop bulimia because they think it could help with a diet, or it could be because of low self-esteem, feeling down or a lack of self-confidence.​

Sometimes people who suffered from anorexia go on to get bulimia.

Signs and symptoms of bulimia

The following behaviour could indicate that you or someone you know is suffering with bulimia:

  • People with bulimia use control of food as a way to cope with emotional difficulties and stress
  • You might become obsessed with your weight and what you eat
  • You feel guilty after eating
  • You feel the need to reverse the effects of eating by purging (vomiting or taking laxatives) or by starving yourself or doing intense exercise
  • Bulimia can make you think about food all the time or feel trapped by unhealthy eating habits
  • You might find yourself eating huge amounts of food at one time
  • You might be binge eating regularly

Binge eating

How often you binge eat is different for everyone, maybe it only happens once every few months or if you have a serious problem with bulimia, maybe you binge and get rid of the food again several times a day.

If binge eating is out of control you might eat two or three times the normal amount of food. Maybe you eat things like food you already threw out, half frozen food or uncooked food. At the end of the binge you start feeling guilty or ashamed of your eating. 

Side effects of Bulimia

There are a number of side effects that can develop as a result of bulimia, including:

  • Vomiting regularly causes tooth decay, bad breath, choking and throat problems
  • Glands in your throat might swell
  • You might have spots or bad skin and hair loss is possible
  • Periods can become irregular
  • You might feel tired, emotional and have mood swings
  • You might suffer from anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, shame or guilty feelings
  • You might feel very alone and unable to stop the eating disorder
  • You can become run-down and have dangerously low levels of essential minerals in the body. If you or someone you know makes themselves sick then, get your bloods checked regularly especially your potassium levels.
  • There is an increased risk of heart problems or stomach or bowel problems
  • In extreme cases, bulimia can cause death due to heart failure

Getting treatment for bulimia

Whether you are concerned about yourself or someone else, it is best to seek advice from your doctor. Your doctor may decide that specialist help is necessary and you may be referred to a psychiatrist or a psychologist.

The aim of treatment is to help the individual gain control over eating such that there is a return to eating regular meals without engaging in vomiting or bingeing.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

A particular type of psychological intervention known as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is often used in order to help the individual change their way of thinking.

Finding support

Remember, people can and do recover from eating disorders. You don't need to go through it alone, there is support out there.

Contact Bodywhys for advice or information. They also have support groups around the country, a helpline, and an online support group.

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Published Decem­ber 20th2012
Last updated Octo­ber 11th2018
Tags bulimia eating disorder body image
Can this be improved? Contact editor@spunout.ie if you have any suggestions for this article.

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