Eating disorders are some of the most challenging types of mental illness present. You need to eat to live, but eating because of your emotions and then purging what you eat over the fear of gaining weight is not healthy — it’s dangerous.
About 0.3 percent of the adult US population suffers from bulimia nervosa, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and of those, women are five times more likely to suffer from this condition than men.
What Is Bulimia?
Bulimia is a potentially life-threatening condition in which people may binge eat, often with a loss of control, and then purge what they ate. This often occurs as a way to get rid of the calories they’ve just consumed. There are various methods people with bulimia use to get rid of these extra calories. Some will use laxatives, while others will self-induce vomiting. Still, others will fast for unhealthy periods of time after binge eating or exercise excessively. Some people use diet products or diuretics to shed pounds. In all cases, those who have bulimia are obsessed with their body image or their body’s shape.
Types of Bulimia
There are two types of bulimia:
To be officially diagnosed, a person must engage in an episode like this at least once a month for a span of three months. However, treatment does not need to wait that long. It’s also important to understand the emotional aspects of bulimia. Most people will experience a loss of control that initiates the process. Then, they feel shame or severe distress as a result of their reckless eating.
What Are the Effects of Bulimia on Life?
Binging and purging have an impact on your life in a variety of ways. Throwing up to lose weight has physical consequences, such as damaging the digestive system. Bulimia teeth develop, which is severe tooth decay often associated with gum disease. Others experience irregular heartbeats, dehydration, and nutritional deficiencies. There’s also an ongoing risk of self-injury and suicide.
Is bulimia a mental illness? It can create a number of different emotional effects on a person, especially if they engage in this eating behavior long term. It can increase negative self-esteem problems, impact social functioning, and make relationships difficult. Many also suffer from anxiety, depression, and personality disorders alongside it. It can also lead to substance abuse, especially if a person turns to alcohol or drugs as a way to overcome the side effects, pain, or emotional factors they have from it.
How Is Bulimia Diagnosed?
The diagnosis of bulimia generally begins with a physical exam to ensure a person is healthy and to notice any changes to the body that could be related to it. Doctors will also want to learn about any physical symptoms being experienced. Urine and blood tests may help rule out other diseases while also identifying any type of immediate health need. An electrocardiogram is also a common physical examination step. It will help detect any heart rhythm abnormalities.
A mental health examination will focus on eating habits and how a person attempts to lose weight. A full psychological evaluation is necessary. It will focus on all aspects of mental health, with a special focus on a person’s attitude towards their body weight and shape.
Metrics for the Bulimic Label
Official diagnosis criteria for bulimia nervosa includes:
- Recurrent episodes of binging eating, which is defined as eating large amounts of food that is definitely larger than what most people would eat in a similar period of time and similar circumstances, as well as a sense of lack of control while eating like this.
- Recurrent inappropriate instances of some type of behavior meant to prevent weight gain. This may include diuretic or laxative use, fasting, excessive exercise, or self-induced vomiting.
- Occurrences must occur at least one time a week for three months on average.
Is Bulimia Genetic? Do Environmental Factors Contribute to the Causes of Bulimia?
The exact cause of bulimia is not well understood. There is some evidence that it can develop in families, but this is not always the case. Other factors include a person’s biological makeup, such as BMI, emotional well-being, and the societal expectations a person is exposed to.
A person is most likely to develop bulimia if they have any of the following circumstances:
- A sibling or parent has had an eating disorder; attributed mostly to first-degree relatives
- Being overweight or obese as a child or a teen
- Psychological factors related to a substance or drug use
- Traumatic events or environmental stress that cause negative self-esteem
- Dieting excessively, especially on restrictive calorie diets
Living with bulimia can be made significantly more complex when a person is under stress or is dealing with other health problems.
Co-Occurring Disorders with Bulimia
As noted, other physical or mental health complications can make bulimia more difficult to manage. It’s not uncommon for a person to have several types of eating disorders, including food avoidance, extreme dieting trends, and fasting rituals. Others may not want to eat in front of other people or in public. Co-occurring mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, are common. A person who is bulimic may also be at a higher risk of having undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Substance abuse is also common.
Because co-occurring disorders are commonly associated with bulimia, they also need to be treated at the same time. This includes substance abuse disorders. Treating all aspects of a person’s mental health needs is critical for long-term recovery.
Death Related to Bulimia
Bulimia is a life-threatening condition on several fronts. Every time a person vomits or binge eats, they are straining their body’s organs to function in a way they’re not supposed to. This challenges the body, often pushing it to extremes. This can cause several risks for death:
- Sudden death can occur at any time due to cardiac or respiratory arrest, often brought on by electrolyte imbalances caused by purging.
- Less commonly, a person may choke or suffer a rupture of the stomach or esophagus from purging episodes.
- Malnutrition can occur, especially in people who purge frequently, limiting the number of nutrients received.
- Suicide is a high-risk factor for early death, especially if a person has a limited support system that misunderstands the emotional trauma experienced.
- Substance abuse-related overdose can also occur, especially in those who use the substances rapidly.
Bulimia’s risks can lead to sudden emergency situations or cause deterioration over a period of time. In all cases, treating bulimia early on is essential to preventing long-term negative outcomes.
FHE Health Offers the Support You Need
Is treating bulimia possible? At FHE Health, we offer comprehensive treatment across a wide range of eating disorders, mental health complications, and substance abuse concerns. Contact our compassionate counselors today at (833) 596-3502 for immediate help.