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Those with bulimia nervosa binge and purge as weight control but also as an emotional outlet and coping mechanism.

Purging is self defined, and individual habits will vary. In general, bulimics eat enormous quantities of food in a single session and immediately thereafter purge, most commonly by vomiting or with laxatives, and less commonly through periods of fasting or extreme exercise.

Older teen girls and younger women account for 80% of all bulimics, although men and older adults may also suffer the disorder. Unlike anorexics, bulimics tend to know they have a problem, and will agree more readily to treatment.

Problematically though, bulimics will generally purge only in private and maintain a relatively normal weight – making it tougher for friends and family to spot the problem.

Most bulimics begin purging initially as a means of weight control, and find that the cycle of binging and purging also offers them feelings of release from negative emotions - Bulimics purge after binging to control weight, but also to relieve emotional distress or tension and many bulimics report brighter moods after having completed a binging and purging cycle. The frequency of binging and purging can vary from occasional episodes at one end of the spectrum, to many times a day in more serious cases.

Bulimia is a mental health disorder, requiring of professional treatment and therapy. Bulimia in extreme cases can be fatal, and treatment is more successful when intervention occurs early in the disease progression. Although perhaps not as lethal as anorexia, bulimia does cause a wide range of physical health symptoms.

Signs of Bulimia Nervosa

Since bulimics respond better to treatment with earlier intervention, it is important for loved-ones to be aware of signs that may indicate a problem.

Indicators of Bulimia Nervosa

  • Always heading to the bathroom after meals
  • The smell of vomit in the room or on the person, or laxative packaging found
  • Unusual food disappearances
  • Finding evidence of food hoarding, or hidden stashes of food wrappers
  • Rounded cheeks, evidence of swollen glands caused by frequent purging
  • Tooth decay or discoloration (acid damage from vomit)
  • Social isolation
  • Mood swings, depression
  • A preoccupation with food or expressed worries about being unable to stop eating
  • Excessive exercise or fasting
  • A strong preference to eat alone

Health Risks of Bulimia

Bulimia can, in rare cases, be fatal - but bulimics risk many serious health and wellbeing complications from their behaviors, including:

  • Tooth decay, sore throat and bad breath, from vomiting
  • Dry skin and hair loss
  • A risk of gastric rupture, in extreme cases of binge eating
  • Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance after excessive purging -This dehydration (and incorrect levels of sodium and potassium in the body) can lead to poor heart functioning, kidney and liver damage
  • Dizziness, headaches and fatigue
  • A loss of menstruation
  • Ruptures of the esophagus
  • An enlargement of parotid glands (rounded cheeks are a symptom)
  • Stomach pain, diarrhea, and constipation
  • Cardiac arrest and possible death

Bulimics use binging and purging as a way to control negative emotions. Bulimics report feeling some release from feelings of depression or anxiety after purging, but this relief is only temporary, as purging, of course, cannot better problems with self-esteem, body-image issues or anxiety.

Bulimia is a serious condition, and is recognized as a mental health disorder, requiring both medical and psychiatric treatment. Most bulimics recognize that their behaviors are problematic, and most will agree to treatment if asked to go. It is therefore very important for loved-ones to remain vigilant to signs of bulimia, and ready to intervene if necessary.

Treatment works, and the earlier treatment is initiated, the better the prognosis.

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Page last updated Aug 17, 2010

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