Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder. People who have bulimia eat very large amounts of food (called binging) and many also use inappropriate means (vomiting, laxatives, water pills) to rid their bodies of the food (called purging). Affected individuals eat compulsively, then purge to prevent gaining weight. They are overly concerned with weight and body image. In some individuals excessive exercise or fasting may replace or supplement purging.
The cause of bulimia nervosa is unknown. Several factors may contribute to this condition:
- Cultural bias toward thinness
- Dieting or restricted eating
- Changes in the level of brain chemicals
- Emotional stress
- Physical changes in the digestive system, including:
- An enlarged stomach
- A stomach that empties slowly
- Decreased production of a digestive hormone
A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.
- Sex: Female
- Age: 11-20 years old
- History of obesity
- Mood disorder
- Family members who have been obese
- Family members who have had a mood disorder
- Compulsive dieting
- Low self-esteem
- Unhappiness with weight and size
- Career in which physical appearance is important
Behavioral symptoms include:
- Eating unusually large amounts of food at one time
- Feeling like eating is out of control
- Making yourself throw up
- Taking laxatives, enemas, water pills, or diet pills
- Excessive exercising
- Mood swings
- Trouble controlling impulses
- Alcohol or drug abuse
Physical symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain
- Menstrual problems
- Swollen cheeks and jaw
- Sore throat
- Swollen salivary glands
- Stained or chipped teeth, due to contact with stomach acid
- Cuts or scars on back of hands, from scraping skin on teeth during forced vomiting
Bulimia may lead to other problems, including:
- Dental and throat problems from stomach acid that rises during vomiting
- Changes in body chemistry and fluids due to vomiting and abuse of laxatives or water pills
Symptoms of these complications include:
- Feeling faint
- Muscle cramps
- Irregular heartbeat
- Heart problems, including sudden death
People with bulimia have a high incidence of personality disorder and of treatable psychiatric conditions, including:
- Depression, often with rapid and wide swings in mood
- Anxiety and panic disorder
- Drug and alcohol abuse or dependence
The doctor will ask about:
- Your medical and psychological history
- The amount of food you eat
- The ways you to try to rid your body of food
The doctor will also perform a physical exam and check your teeth for signs of erosion.
Tests may include:
Blood Tests – to look for chemical imbalances
Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) – to look for heart problems due to purging
Drug Screening - to check for drug use
A mental-health professional may also perform a psychiatric exam and/or psychological tests.
The goals of treatment are:
- To stop binging and purging
- To focus self-esteem away from body weight and shape
A type of therapy known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be very effective in eliminating or reducing binging and purging. Cognitive behavioral therapy may be particularly effective when combined with drug treatment.
Other therapies may be less effective, but can help patients:
- Gain insight into the problem
- Recognize what triggers binging and purging
- Develop new coping skills
- Learn and practice stress-management techniques
- Talk about feelings
- Develop a more appropriate idea of thinness
- Develop healthier attitudes about eating
- Learn to eat regularly to reduce the urge to binge
Antidepressant drugs, particularly “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors – SSRIs” have proven effectiveness in helping reduce binging and purging behaviors.
Please Note: On March 22, 2004, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a Public Health Advisory that cautions physicians, patients, families and caregivers of patients with depression to closely monitor both adults and children receiving certain antidepressant medications. The FDA is concerned about the possibility of worsening depression and/or the emergence of suicidal thoughts, especially among children and adolescents at the beginning of treatment, or when there is an increase or decrease in the dose. The medications of concern - mostly SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors) - are: Prozac (fluoxetine), Zoloft (sertraline), Paxil (paroxetine), Luvox (fluvoxamine), Celexa (citalopram); Lexapro (escitalopram), Wellbutrin (bupropion), Effexor (venlafaxine), Serzone (nefazodone), and Remeron (mirtazapine). Of these, only Prozac (fluoxetine) is approved for use in children and adolescents for the treatment of major depressive disorder. Prozac (fluoxetine), Zoloft (sertraline), and Luvox (fluvoxamine) are approved for use in children and adolescents for the treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder. For more information, please visit http://www.fda.gov/cder/drug/antidepressants/default.htm.
Healthy attitudes about food and your body help prevent bulimia nervosa. Suggestions include:
- Maintain a rational approach to dieting and food.
- Accept a realistic body image.
- Take pride in what you do well.
- Set realistic goals.
- Talk to your doctor or a mental health professional if:
- You think your quest for thinness may be getting out of control
- You think you may be developing an eating disorder
- If you have a friend who may have bulimia, encourage him/her to get help