What is bulimia?
Carrying on from my previous blog posts that have discussed eating disorders in general, and anorexia nervosa, this one will focus on bulimia nervosa (bulimia). Out of the four eating disorders, bulimia is the third most common. This post will discuss what bulimia is, the symptoms of it and the treatments that are available to help a person recover from it. Males and females of any age can develop bulimia, but it is most common in young women and usually starts in the mid to late teenage years.
Like with anorexia, bulimia is a serious mental health condition and eating disorder. People with bulimia are caught in a cycle where they eat a large amount of food in a short time frame (this is classed as binge eating) and to compensate for this, they then make themselves sick (purge), use laxatives or diuretics, or carry out fasting or excessive exercise, or do a combination of these, to try and ensure they do not gain weight. Whilst binge eating, people with bulimia eat food they would normally avoid, and do not feel in control of how much or how quickly they are eating, and they may feel disconnected from doing this.
As well as the above symptoms, others include having a fear of putting on weight, a person being very critical about their weight and body shape, and experiencing changes in mood, such as feeling very anxious or tense. People who have bulimia place a strong emphasis on their weight and shape, and they may see themselves as being much larger in size than they actually are. Behavioural signs of someone who is developing bulimia include comparing their body with other people’s bodies; being secretive, especially about eating; being irritable and having mood swings; being socially withdrawn; and hoarding food. One sign that other people can look out for especially is seeing a person disappear soon after or during eating, which is so they can purge.
Like with anorexia, bulimia can cause serious physical problems, long-term effects to the body, and can even be fatal. With bulimia, these physical problems can be with a person’s teeth due to frequently vomiting; damage to the throat and vocal chords, and to the intestines and the stomach; problems with the heart and digestive system due to the misuse of laxatives; kidney damage; and other symptoms such as tiredness and abdominal pain. These symptoms and effects are not conclusive and more information can be found in the references section.
To have the best chance at having a quick and sustained recovery from bulimia, getting treatment at the earliest possible opportunity is key. Many of the physical effects of bulimia can be prevented from getting worse, or may even have the ability to be reversed, and a full recovery from the eating disorder is possible. For anyone who thinks they may have bulimia, a visit to their GP is the first step at seeking help, as they will ask about the person’s eating habits, and check their overall health and their weight. If the GP believes someone may have bulimia, or another eating disorder, they will then make a referral to an eating disorder specialist or team.
Most people who have bulimia can stay at home while receiving treatment for the condition, attending clinic appointments when necessary, and only be admitted to hospital if there are serious health complications. Treatment programmes may differ for children, but the treatments for bulimia include having a treatment plan made, tailored to the individual, which will include any other support that is needed, such as for other conditions like anxiety or depression. A therapist will support the person during this process, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) may be offered as part of the treatment. A guided self-help programme may also be offered where the person works through a self-help book, and may include making meal plans and keeping a diary. Medication may also be offered alongside the treatments listed above.
People who have bulimia may be reluctant to seek help, but there is a lot of information and support available, including helpline services listed in the references section below.
Sarah Keeping MBPsS MSc PgDip GDip BA (Hons) Cert HE
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