Bulimia Causes & Effects

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Understanding Bulimia

Learn about bulimia

When an individual engages in a pattern of eating that involves excessive overeating, also known as binge-eating, and resorts to extreme measures to rid the body of the food consumed, it is known as bulimia nervosa. Suffers of this mental illness appear to have a lack of control over the amount of food eaten during episodes of binge-eating, often devouring more than most individuals would during one meal. Following these episodes, individuals with bulimia may induce vomiting or abuse laxatives, diuretics, or enemas with the hopes of preventing weight gain. A preoccupation with food and a great deal of focus on body shape and weight are cornerstone to this disorder, and episodes of binging and purging typically occur at least once per week for a minimum of three months. The health risks associated with bulimia nervosa can be life-threatening. However, with effective treatment, individuals grappling with bulimia nervosa can learn how to live healthy, happy lives, free from this destructive cycle of disordered eating.


Bulimia statistics

Experts in the field of mental health estimate that 24 million people of all ages suffer from eating disorders, including bulimia nervosa. Research has revealed that one to nearly two percent of young females meet criteria for a bulimia nervosa diagnosis. This disorder is believed to affect individuals in older adolescence and young adulthood, and is said to be less common among males. Further research needs to be conducted on the prevalence of bulimia nervosa among males, however, estimates suggest that the ratio of this disorder is ten females to every one male.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for bulimia

Eating disorder experts believe that the causes and risk factors for bulimia nervosa are rooted in an individual’s genetics, physiological makeup, exposure to certain environmental influences, and other risk factors. When trying to understand the development of this mental health condition, consider the following explanations:

Genetic: Researchers have concluded that when an individual has a family history of bulimia nervosa or other form of disordered eating, there is an increased likelihood for that same individual to eventually adopt the pathology and behaviors synonymous with bulimia nervosa at some point.  Additionally, when there is a family history of other mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, the chances of becoming bulimic increase as well.

Environmental: Mental health professionals have deduced a few key environmental influences that can lead to the development of bulimia nervosa. Being the victim of sexual abuse during childhood is said to precede the onset of bulimia symptoms. Additionally, exposure to violence or being the victim of physical abuse can also make a person more susceptible to this disorder. Lastly, exposure to environments in which thinness is valued and portrayed as a necessity can also increase a person’s chances of developing bulimia nervosa.

Risk Factors:

  • Being female
  • Family history of bulimia nervosa or other mental health conditions
  • Personal history of mental health conditions
  • Exposure to environments in which thinness is revered
  • Being the victim of sexual or physical abuse

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of bulimia

Depending on the length of time that an individual has been bulimic, the apparent signs and symptoms of this disorder can vary. Unlike other eating disorders that lead to drastic weight loss, such as anorexia nervosa, people suffering from bulimia may be of average weight or overweight. At first glance, they may not appear to be grappling with disordered eating. However, if any of the following signs and symptoms are present, you, a friend, or loved one may be struggling with bulimia nervosa:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Binge-eating followed by self-induced vomiting
  • Abuse of laxatives, diuretics, or enemas
  • Excessive exercising
  • Engaging in ritualistic eating behaviors
  • Rigid dieting / fasting
  • Fainting spells
  • Social withdrawal or isolation
  • Inability to fulfill roles / responsibilities

Physical symptoms:

  • Menstrual irregularity or amenorrhea (females only)
  • Irregular bowel movements
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Imbalanced fluids and/or electrolytes
  • Low potassium levels
  • Calluses or scars on hands or knuckles
  • Constipation due to laxative abuse
  • Dehydration
  • Internal bleeding
  • Fluctuations in weight
  • Tooth discoloration / decay
  • Mouth sores
  • Swollen glands
  • Acid reflux
  • Ulcers
  • Swollen cheeks

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Obsessions / compulsions / preoccupations with food, weight, or body shape
  • Poor impulse control
  • Desire to control situations and environment

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Drastic shifts in mood
  • Depressed mood
  • Elevated anxiety levels
  • Low self-esteem / self-worth
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Feelings of ineffectiveness
  • Overwhelming fear of gaining weight


Effects of bulimia

A serious form of disordered eating, bulimia nervosa is a mental health condition that can render a number of life-threatening consequences if the pathology and behavior associated with this disorder persist. The listed effects are likely to occur if an individual does not seek the appropriate treatment to begin recovering from this potentially deadly disorder:

  • Development of another mental health condition
  • Inability to maintain employment
  • Financial strife
  • Academic failure
  • Infertility
  • Decline in quality and quantity of interpersonal relationships
  • Heart attack
  • Heart failure
  • Rectal prolapse
  • Kidney failure
  • Ruptured stomach
  • Skeletal myopathy
  • Ruptured esophagus
  • Substance use / abuse/ addiction / dependence
  • Self-harm
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Suicide attempts
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Bulimia and co-occurring disorders

There are a number of other mental health conditions that can occur alongside bulimia nervosa. Sometimes occurring prior to the onset of bulimia symptoms, the following mental disorders can be diagnosed in conjunction with bulimia nervosa:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Personality disorders
  • Substance use disorders

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I had struggled with this secret for so long. When I finally sought help from Center for Hope, everything changed. Now my life is wonderful and free of bulimia.

– Anonymous Client