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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 mental-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.

What causes bulimia?

Anyone of any gender can develop an eating disorder like bulimia. Eating disorders often develop during teenage years, but it can happen at any age. Although it is not always clear why someone becomes bulimic, it can be linked to concerns about your body shape or size and what you eat, anxiety and low self-esteem, a family history of eating disorders, mental health problems or addiction, or experiencing sexual abuse.

Signs and symptoms of bulimia

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

  • Making yourself vomit after eating
  • Using laxatives to make yourself use the toilet after eating
  • Exercising too much
  • Fasting or starving yourself after binge eating
  • Worrying about putting on weight all the time
  • Criticising your body size, weight and shape
  • Thinking about food a lot
  • Feeling tense or anxious
  • Avoiding social activities around food
  • Feeling like you have no control over what and how you eat
  • Creating strict rules around dieting, eating or exercising

There are also some physical signs of bulimia, including:

  • Feeling tired
  • Your weight is going up and down dramatically
  • Sore throat from being sick so often
  • A bloated tummy or stomach pain
  • A puffy face
  • Self harming

The binge-purge cycle

People with bulimia can often get caught up in the binge-purge cycle, which means eating a lot of food all in one go, and then purging it by vomiting or taking laxatives.

How often you binge eat is different for everyone. For some people it might only be once every few months, while for others, the binge-purge cycle can happen every day. Binge eating can be triggered by certain events or emotions like sadness or stress.

If you have strict rules for yourself around eating or exercising, and you fail to stick to your own rules, it can lead to a loss of control and binge eating. Feelings of shame or guilt can then set in after the binge, and you might purge it all by vomiting or using laxatives. This can later make you feel hungry again, and the cycle can continue. 

Side effects of bulimia

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

  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Dental problems from vomiting regularly
  • Swollen glads
  • Dry skin or hair
  • Periods can become irregular
  • Anxietydepressionlow self-esteem, shame or guilty feelings
  • There is an increased risk of heart problems, kidney or bowel problems
  • Bone problems

Bulimia can also be life-threatening. It is important to get treatment if you think you may have bulimia. 

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.

Getting help for bulimia

If you think you may have bulimia, it is important to go to your GP as soon as you can and let them know what's going on. They will be able to point you in the right direction to get treatment.

If you are worried about a friend or family member, talk to them about it and encourage them to go see their GP. You can also offer to go with them if they don't want to go alone.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be used to support you with your recovery from bulimia. CBT looks at the ways that our thoughts affect our behaviours and feelings, and can be used to help you work out what triggers your binge eating and to manage negative feelings about your body. It can also help you to create plans for meals and snacks and stick to your new eating habits.

Family therapy

Younger people might take part in family-based treatment (FBT), involving you and your family talking to a therapist. FBT will look at how you have been affected by your bulimia, and what your family can do to support you in getting better.

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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