Many of us turn to food when we’re feeling lonely, bored, or stressed. But if you have the eating disorder bulimia, overeating is more like a compulsion. Afterward, instead of eating sensibly to make for it, you punish yourself by purging, fasting, or exercising to get rid of the calories. This vicious cycle of ‘binging and purging’ takes a toll on your body and emotional well-being. But the cycle can be broken. With the treatment and support, you can develop a healthier relationship with food, overcome your feelings of anxiety, guilt, and shame, and regain control of your life.
What is bulimia?
Bulimia, also known as Bulimia Nervosa, is a serious eating disorder characterized by frequent episodes of binge eating followed by extreme efforts to avoid gaining weight, often by vomiting or excessive exercising. This repeated ‘binge-and-purge cycle’ can cause damage to your digestive system and create chemical imbalances in the body that harm the functioning of major organs, including the heart. It can even be fatal. While it is most common among young women, bulimia can affect women and men of all ages.
Not all bulimics purge
It’s important to note that bulimia doesn’t necessarily involve purging: physically eliminating the food from your body by throwing up or using laxatives, enemas, or diuretics. If you make up for your binge by fasting, excess exercising, or going on crash diets, this also qualifies to bulimia.
Are you bulimic?
- Are you afraid that when you start eating you won’t be able to stop?
- Do you feel guilty, ashamed, or depressed after you eat?
- Are you obsessed with your body and weight?
- Does food and dieting dominate your life?
- Do you ever eat until you feel sick?
- Do you vomit or take laxatives to control your weight?
If you’ve been living with bulimia for a while, you’ve probably noticed these things but you must have concealed your binging and purging habits. It’s human to feel ashamed about having a hard time controlling yourself with food, so you most likely binge alone. If you eat a box of doughnuts, then you’ll replace them so your friends or family won’t notice. You’ll go to the kitchen to binge after everyone else has gone to bed. You always have numerous empty wrappers or hidden stashes of junk food in your bag. But despite your secret life, those closest to you probably have a sense that something is not right. Because when you keep up with the process of binging and purging for a long time, physical changes may appear to your body.
Physical signs and symptoms of bulimia
- Calluses or scars on knuckles or hands from sticking fingers down their throat to induce vomiting
- Puffy “chipmunk” cheeks caused by repeated vomiting
- Discolored, yellow, or ragged teeth from exposure to stomach acid when throwing up
- Frequent fluctuations in weight by 4-5kgs or more due to alternating binging and purging
Bulimia causes and effects
There is no single cause of bulimia. While low self-esteem and concerns about weight and body image play major roles, there are many contributing factors.
Risk factors for bulimia include:
- Poor body image, particularly when paired with strict dieting
- Low self-esteem, often stemming from depression, perfectionism, or a critical home environment
- Stressful life changes, such as a breakup, going away to college, starting a new job, or going through puberty
- History of trauma or abuse. This includes things such as sexual assault, childhood neglect or abuse, troubled family relationships, or the death of a loved one
Effects of bulimia
When you are living with bulimia, you are putting your body - and even your life -at risk. The most dangerous side-effect of bulimia is dehydration due to purging. Vomiting, laxatives, and diuretics can cause electrolyte imbalances in the body, most commonly in the form of low potassium levels. Low potassium levels trigger a wide range of symptoms ranging from lethargy and cloudy thinking to irregular heartbeat and death. Chronically low levels of potassium can also result in kidney failure. Using ipecac syrup is also very dangerous, and can cause sudden death.
Steps to bulimia recovery
Regardless of how long you’ve struggled with bulimia, you can learn to break the binge and purge cycle -
- Admit you have a problem. Up until now, you’ve been invested in the idea that life will be better and you’ll finally feel good - if you lose more weight and control what you eat. The first step in bulimia recovery is admitting that your relationship to food is distorted and out of control. s
- Talk to someone. It can be hard to talk about what you’re going through, especially if you’ve kept your bulimia a secret for a long time. You may be ashamed, ambivalent, or afraid of what others will think. But it’s important to understand that you’re not alone. Find a good listener - someone who will support you as you try to get better.
- Stay away from people, places, and activities that trigger the temptation to binge or purge. You may need to avoid looking at fashion or fitness magazines, spend less time with friends who constantly diet and talk about losing weight, and stay away from weight loss web sites. You may also need to be careful when it comes to meal planning, cooking magazines, and shows.
- Address any underlying mood disorder. It’s common for people with bulimia to also suffer from depression or anxiety. Getting help for co-existing conditions is vital to your bulimia recovery.
- Seek professional help. The advice and support of a doctor can help you regain your health, learn to eat normally again, and develop healthier attitudes about food and your body.