What is Bulimia Nervosa?

Bulimia nervosa – better known as "bulimia" – is an eating disorder characterized by patterns of bingeing (consuming a large amount of food in a short amount of time) and purging (eliminating calories consumed). Bulimia is a debilitating condition that is commonly accompanied one or more serious mental health conditions.

What Causes Bulimia Nervosa?

There is no one cause of bulimia. A number of different biological, psychological and sociocultural factors contribute to the development of this condition.

Learn more about a few different factors of bulimia below.

Biological Factors of Bulimia

While genetic risk plays an important role in the development of bulimia, not all individuals with a family history of this disorder will develop the illness. And, many individuals with no known genetic link to eating disorders develop bulimia.

Genetics

More than 50 percent of the risk of developing an eating disorder is based on your genetics, underscoring a strong familial component to these illnesses. In fact, a woman with a mother or sister who has bulimia is four times more likely to develop bulimia as well.

Personality Traits

Personality traits are believed to be inherited, and a distinct set of traits has been found to be common among those at highest risk for bulimia. Traits like the following tend to characterize those struggling with bulimia:

  • High impulsivity
  • Unstable moods
  • Emotional intensity
  • Difficulty seeing the “big picture”
  • Cognitive rigidity

Psychological Factors of Bulimia

Psychological factors, in conjunction with biological and social influences, can play an important role in the development of bulimia nervosa. We have learned that there are certain characteristics and experiences that are common to individuals with bulimia (including perfectionism, low self-esteem and traumatic events), that may place a person at greater risk for the illness. These factors are often considered to be maintaining features that contribute to the perpetuation of the illness and can be directly targeted during treatment.

Low Self-Esteem

When one is experiencing low self-esteem, it can cause feelings of depression which can contribute to the development of eating disorder behaviors. Sources of low self-esteem are varied and can include childhood experiences, temperament styles, and other mental health conditions.

Perfectionism

Perfectionism refers to a personality style where an individual strives for flawlessness, is highly concerned with approval, and may be extremely self-critical regarding performance. Mistakes are often viewed as personal failures – and something to be avoided at all cost. For individuals with bulimia nervosa, high levels of perfectionism can be seen within the illness (e.g., strict rules around eating and food) as well as outside of the illness (e.g., extremely high standards and expectations for themselves in academics, work, etc.).

Sociocultural Factors of Bulimia

The sociocultural context (social networks, media influence and cultural norms relating to eating and appearance) during the development of bulimia nervosa requires important consideration. In fact, there are certain aspects of western society values that have been linked to bulimia including the pursuit of the “ideal body” and the overvaluation of appearance as a measure of success and worth.

Messages promoting unrealistic beauty standards that place high value on achieving a certain look (thinness, muscularity) can create pressure to engage in behaviors, like dieting, that place certain persons at greater risk. Other social influences include involvement in specific activities, groups or occupations that emphasize weight and appearance.

Traumatic Events

Research shows that many patients who are struggling with an eating disorder have experienced a traumatic event in their lifetime [1]. This is particularly true for patients who have bulimia-spectrum eating disorders [2]. Traumatic experiences, with or without a PTSD diagnosis, can lead to disordered eating behaviors as the person attempts to cope with the distressing effects of the traumatic event.

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3966425/
[2] Brewerton, T. D. (2007). Eating Disorders, Trauma, and Comorbidity: Focus on PTSD. Eating Disorders,15(4), 285-304. https://doi.org/10.1080/10640260701454311

The Thin Beauty Ideal

Western societies equate thinness with female beauty and success, a condition known as the “thin beauty ideal.” [3] Studies have demonstrated that cultural pressures to achieve the thin beauty ideal can lead to increased body dissatisfaction and weight concerns, which may then contribute to the development of bulimia nervosa. Western norms for male bodies emphasize extreme muscularity in an equally unrealistic standard. With modern developments like social media, western ideals and values have been disseminated globally. Recent studies have demonstrated increases in eating disorders in non-western cultures as well as minority groups.

[3] Morrissey, R. A., Gondoli, D. M., & Corning, A. F. (2019). Reexamining the restraint pathway as a conditional process among adolescent girls: When does dieting link body dissatisfaction to bulimia? Development and Psychopathology, 32(3), 1031–1043. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0954579419001287

Pressure from Social Media

With social media being a major influence on culture today, there are many negative effects that can lead to disordered eating and bulimia nervosa [4]. Being bombarded with media images of extremely thin models, for example, promotes the internalization of anti-fat attitudes and the need to control weight. On social media, there are many images of "perfection", diet talk and before-and-after images that can influence eating disorder development and maintenance.

[4] Rounsefell, K., Gibson, S., McLean, S., Blair, M., Molenaar, A., Brennan, L., Truby, H., & McCaffrey, T. A. (2019). Social media, body image and food choices in healthy young adults: A mixed methods systematic review. Nutrition & Dietetics, 77(1), 19–40. https://doi.org/10.1111/1747-0080.12581

Warning Signs and Symptoms of Bulimia

Bulimia (bingeing and purging) is an isolating, secretive illness that prevents many people from enjoying a full and rewarding life. You might be wondering, how does bulimia start? There are many signs that can show whether or not someone is experiencing bulimia.

What are Warning Signs of Bulimia?

  • Consuming large amounts of food in a short period of time (bingeing)
  • Use of behaviors to compensate for calories consumed, including purging (making yourself vomit), restricting/fasting, over-exercising or using laxatives, diuretics, ipecac syrup or enemas
  • Evidence of binges, including disappearance of large amounts of food or appearance of wrappers/packaging
  • Evidence of purging, including trips to the bathroom during or after meals, packaging of laxatives or diuretics, rigid adherence to exercise schedules, etc.
  • Feeling “out of control” or shame over how much you eat
  • Fear of gaining weight or being “fat”
  • Self-esteem and self-worth tied heavily to body shape and weight
  • Withdrawal from friends, family and “normal” activities/routines
  • Failing performance in work, school and athletic engagements

What are Symptoms of Bulimia?

What do people with bulimia experience with this eating disorder? Although symptoms may vary per patient, we’ve listed common symptoms of bulimia nervosa below so you can understand this serious condition in more detail.

  • Bingeing more than one time per week
  • Purging more than one time per week, including self-induced vomiting, laxative/diet pill/diuretic abuse, excessive exercise, chewing/spitting of food, or insulin misuse
  • Bradycardia and orthostasis (a form of low blood pressure that happens when you stand up from sitting or lying down)
  • Low normal to abnormal labs; can include electrolyte abnormalities
  • Swelling of the cheeks or jaw area
  • Calluses on the back of the hands and knuckles (from self-induced vomiting)
  • Discolored or stained teeth (sometimes called "bulimia teeth")

Bulimia vs. Anorexia

Bulimia and Anorexia are often confused, because people with each disorder can engage in similar behaviors of bingeing, purging, and restricting behaviors. They also both focus on weight and body image. Individuals diagnosed with Anorexia are commonly underweight, which is not the case for most people with Bulimia. However, it’s important to note that a person cannot be diagnosed with both Bulimia and Anorexia at the same time, although an individual may experience both disorders separately over the course of their illness.

Bulimia vs. Purging Disorder

Bulimia and Purging Disorder (which is included in the OSFED category of diagnoses) are similar in that individuals with both disorders engage in compensatory purging behaviors. However, people who have Purging Disorder typically endorse purging after eating an average-sized meal or snack, whereas people who have bulimia more commonly purge following a binge episode.

Bulimia Nervosa Health Risks & Consequences

Bulimia Nervosa Health Risks Span the Entire Body

There are many serious health risks associated with bulimia. Bingeing and purging, particularly recurrent and/or chronic episodes, have profound negative effects on the body’s systems.

Specific Health Risks of Bulimia

  • Cardiac complications (irregular heartbeat and heart failure stemming from electrolyte imbalances such as potassium, sodium, and chloride)
  • Dehydration
  • Edema (stemming from periods of purging cessation)
  • Ulcers, pancreatitis
  • Esophageal inflammation and/rupture, acid reflux (resulting from vomiting)
  • "Bulimia teeth" or tooth decay and staining (caused by stomach acids/frequent vomiting)
  • Digestive irregularity (chronic irregular bowel movements and constipation, sometimes stemming from laxative abuse)
  • Fatigue and muscle weakness (from over-exercise or electrolyte imbalances)
  • Risks associated with diabulimia (manipulating insulin for weight loss in Type 1 Diabetics), including organ damage and peripheral neuropathy

Bulimia Nervosa Treatment and Recovery Options

Common Bulimia Treatment Methods

Treatment for bulimia at Eating Recovery Center involves a thoughtful fusion of medical, psychiatric, therapeutic and dietary interventions.

Medical Bulimia Treatment

Recovery from bulimia is a marathon, not a sprint. Changing ingrained bingeing/purging behaviors is hard and you’ll need support. It begins with careful, controlled stabilization.

The initial focus in bulimia treatment is to achieve medical and psychiatric stabilization. While many patients suffering with bulimia are a normal weight at the time of admission, some may require weight restoration in addition to other stabilization efforts. 

Our medical experts understand the urgent need to safely “detox” from bulimia and purging behaviors. Patients that cease purging will often experience abdominal pain and constipation after stopping their laxatives or significant edema, resulting in weight gain. The edema is a consequence of chronic severe volume depletion from loss of fluids (Pseudo-Bartter’s Syndrome). This syndrome is severely worsened by overuse of a rapid infusion of IV saline fluids used in most medical settings (for treatment of low blood pressure, dehydration, hypokalemia and alkalosis), creating a potentially dangerous scenario for patients.

As your body begins to heal, then your team at our eating disorder treatment center can begin to help you through the process of healing and lead you to recovery.

Medication for Bulimia

Prozac (Fluoxetine) is the only FDA-approved medication for the treatment of bulimia.

Medication for Comorbidities with Bulimia

Medication may also be prescribed for comorbid diagnoses like mood and/or anxiety disorders.

Psychiatric and Therapeutic Treatment Methods for Bulimia

Following stabilization, patients will engage in a thoughtful curriculum of individual, group, family and experiential therapy, as well as dietary counseling and education. Based on ground-breaking, evidence-based research, we offer therapeutic interventions proven to address the eating disorder and help our patients achieve lasting recovery.

Along with the therapies listed, bulimia symptoms will be carefully monitored and managed by our staff. If this is not accomplished, patients often resume purging behaviors to alleviate uncomfortable symptoms and manage anxiety related to the discomfort.

Individual Counseling

Individual counseling is a part of treatment at every level of care for patients with bulimia. In this collaborative relationship, the patient and their therapist will monitor the patient’s progress toward their treatment goals, and explore specific situations and emotions that the patient encounters on their recovery journey.

Family Support and Educations

Family counseling is an important adjunct to individual counseling in the treatment of bulimia and focuses on psychoeducation about the disorder and helping family members develop coping skills to support their loved one’s recovery. Family counseling is included in treatment at most levels of care.

Dietary Bulimia Treatment

Working with a Dietitian

Patients with bulimia will work with a dietitian to understand the patterns of their binge/purge behaviors and interrupt these behaviors through a regular pattern of nutrition.

Learning About Nutrition

The dietitian and patient will collaborate to increase the patient’s flexibility with a wide variety of food types, to prepare the patient to continue new patterns of eating after the end of treatment.

Types of Bulimia Treatment at ERC

If you are interested in learning more about treatment for eating disorders, including bulimia, we can help. Our eating disorder treatment centers across the nation provide specialized bulimia treatment for diverse patients of all ages and at all levels of care.

Inpatient Treatment

Inpatient treatment is a level of care where the individual lives at the treatment center full-time. Individuals who benefit from inpatient treatment are experiencing medical instability because of their eating disorder symptoms.

Residential Treatment

Residential treatment is, like inpatient treatment, a level of care where the individual lives at the treatment center full-time; however, the individual is medically stable and needs less medical monitoring. Individuals who benefit from residential treatment often need round-the-clock support to maintain new, recovery-focused behaviors.

Partial Hospitalization Treatment (PHP)

Partial Hospitalization (PHP) treatment allows patients to engage in intensive treatment while still living in their familiar home environment. By spending 10 hours per day in treatment, patients are able to continue establishing new patterns of behavior; by going home at night, they are able to practice implementing their new skills in real time.

Intensive Outpatient Treatment (IOP)

Intensive Outpatient (IOP) treatment allows patients to participate fully in their work or school schedules while still receiving therapeutic support three hours per day, three times per week. IOP provides a supportive way for patients to transition into typical routines and responsibilities.

Goals of Bulimia Treatment and Bulimia Recovery

During the treatment process, the treatment team will work collaboratively with patients to develop and achieve critical goals that provide the foundation for ongoing recovery work. Important treatment goals for most patients with bulimia include: cessation of binge/purge behaviors, learning effective emotional coping skills, and exposure work.

Learning New Patterns of Behavior

Stopping the cycle of bingeing and purging is possible. This is achieved in treatment through a variety of interventions, including establishing a regular pattern of nourishment, psychoeducation about the cyclical nature of bulimia behaviors, and a supportive, therapeutic environment while the individual learns a new pattern of behavior.

Developing New Emotional Coping Skills

Many people with bulimia identify that the eating disorder serves as a way to manage painful emotions, so developing a toolbox of emotional coping skills that can be utilized for downregulation and self-soothing is an integral part of increasing freedom from the eating disorder.

Increasing Self-Confidence

Learning to challenge difficult situations is the core of exposure work in eating disorder treatment. Whether this is a food item, a social situation, exercise, or body image, taking small, successful steps toward these challenging areas helps one build mastery and self-confidence without using eating disorder behaviors to cope or escape.

Get Help at Our Bulimia Treatment and Recovery Center

While bulimia is a very serious illness, the good news is that bulimia can be treated. Without treatment, those suffering with bulimia will experience serious health risks that can have long-lasting effects. We encourage you to call us at 877-825-8584 so we can help you or your loved one begin the healing process.

A man reads a book in a treatment center

Bulimia Facts & Statistics

You may know that bulimia is a complex eating disorder. But you may not know about the intense secrecy associated with this illness: bulimia sufferers work constantly to hide their bingeing and purging behaviors from others.

Additional Facts About Bulimia Nervosa

  • 5 percent of American women suffer from bulimia nervosa in their lifetime.1
  • Standardized Mortality Ratio (SMR) for Bulimia Nervosa is 1.93 (SMR is a ratio between the observed number of deaths in an study population and the number of deaths would be expected).2
  • Nearly half of bulimia patients have a comorbid mood disorder.3
  • More than half of bulimia patients have comorbid anxiety disorders.3
  • 1 in 10 bulimia patients have a comorbid substance abuse disorder, usually alcohol use.3

By shining a light on bulimia's life-threatening consequences and its pervasiveness, we hope to help increase awareness of this debilitating illness and to encourage those who suffer to get help. With proper treatment, recovery from bulimia is possible.

  1. Hudson, J. I., Hiripi, E., Pope, H. G., & Kessler, R. C. (2007). The prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in the national comorbidity survey replication. Biological Psychiatry, 61(3), 348–358.
  2. Arcelus, J., Mitchell, A. J., Wales, J., & Nielsen, S. (2011). Mortality rates in patients with anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders: a meta-analysis of 36 studies. Archives of General Psychiatry, 68(7), 724-731.
  3. Ulfvebrand, S., Birgegard, A., Norring, C., Hogdahl, L., & von Hausswolff-Juhlin, Y. (2015). Psychiatric comorbidity in women and men with eating disorders results from a large clinical database. Psychiatry Research, 230(2), 294-299.

Bulimia Research is Lacking

As one of the most complex mental health illnesses, the research around bulimia nervosa is ongoing. We acknowledge that there are some gaps in the field about this eating disorder condition, however, our team is constantly doing their part to study and analyze bulimia to improve our specialized treatment approach.

Frequently Asked Questions About Bulimia Nervosa

What is bulimia?

Although research about bulimia is ongoing, there is a lot you can learn about this eating disorder to understand how to get help or help a loved one. Learn more about bulimia, including the causes, symptoms and available treatment options.

What causes bulimia?

As with other eating disorders, bulimia has no singular cause. However, the evolving scientific literature suggests that this pattern of disordered eating develops from a complex interplay between genetic, psychological and sociocultural factors.

What are the health risks associated with bulimia?

There are many health risks associated with bulimia. Learn about the short-term and long-term risks to understand the effects of this disorder.

How is bulimia treated?

Bulimia treatment is unique to each patient’s needs. Medical stabilization, psychiatric stabilization, nutritional rehabilitation and weight restoration (when appropriate) are considered when determining a patient’s treatment plan.

Do I have bulimia?

If you or a loved one struggle with some of the symptoms described here, it may be worth speaking with a clinician and considering treatment options.

Take our bulimia quiz.

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