What is Bulimia?

Bulimia is a serious eating disorder characterised by a cycle of severe overeating marked by a feeling of losing self-control and followed by drastic behaviors intended to negate the overeating episode, such as intense and excessive exercise, self-induced/forced vomiting, use of laxatives or diuretics with the purpose of expelling the consumed food, or a combination of these actions.

Bulimia can continue for many years without the knowledge of family or friends as sufferers often appear to eat normally and don’t necessarily lose much weight.

Signs & Symptoms of Bulimia

The observable signs of Bulimia are not as readily apparent as those of Anorexia, as individuals with Bulimia usually maintain a relatively normal bodyweight. Certain behaviors, such as those suggesting binge eating, frequently excusing oneself to the restroom or other private area immediately after eating are indicative of bulimia. Other signs and symptoms include:

  • Isolation or social withdrawal
  • Unusual preoccupation with tracking calorie intake and weight or body image
  • Changes in dentition
  • Reports of unexplained gastrointestinal distress and/or heartburn
  • Excessively strict and/or rigorous approaches to exercise are some of the possible signs of bulimia
  • Depression and anxiety frequently co-occur with bulimia.

In addition to emotional and psychological distress, bulimia has severe medical/physical health implications that can be life-threatening, most notably severe electrolyte imbalances that can result in heart attack or stroke. Other medical complications include dehydration, tooth decay, and a range of serious gastrointestinal problems. Individuals who may be suffering with bulimia should have a complete evaluation by qualified healthcare and mental healthcare practitioners.

Contributing Factors to Bulimia

There is no single cause of bulimia. As with other eating disorders, bulimia may be preceded by or mark the onset of psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety. Like anorexia, in some cases bulimic behaviors may onset as a maladaptive coping response to extreme stressors or as an attempt to reestablish a sense of control when an individual is experiencing extreme feelings of helplessness or anxiety.

How to Recover from Bulimia

As with other psychological and eating disorders, Bulimia treatment includes intensive psychotherapy in a range of modalities, support from family and friends, and medical monitoring and treatment. Individuals with bulimia will likely benefit from participating in therapy for an extended period of time, beyond the cessation of eating disordered behaviors. Medications, counseling, and social support can play key roles in recovery from Bulimia. For additional educational information on Bulimia, visit the National Health Service at www.nhs.uk.

Page published: August 7, 2019. Page last reviewed and clinically fact-checked January 14, 2022