What is bulimia nervosa?
Bulimia (say "boo-LEE-mee-uh") is a type of eating disorder. People with bulimia will eat a larger amount of food than most people would in a similar situation, in a short period of time (binge). Then, in order to prevent weight gain, they will do something to get rid of the food (purge). They may vomit, exercise too much, or use medicines like laxatives.
People who have bulimia judge themselves harshly on their body weight and shape. In order to help them cope with these feelings, they follow a strict diet to try to lose weight. But over time the hunger from the strict diet triggers them to binge eat. After binge eating, they feel out of control, ashamed, guilty, and afraid of gaining weight. This distress causes them to purge, in hopes of "undoing" any possible weight gain from the binge.
Without treatment, this "binge and purge" cycle can lead to serious, long-term health problems. Acid in the mouth from vomiting can cause tooth decay, gum disease, and loss of tooth enamel. Any type of purging can lead to bone thinning (osteoporosis), kidney damage, heart problems, or even death.
If you or someone you know has bulimia or another eating disorder, get help. Eating disorders can be dangerous. And willpower alone is not enough to overcome them. Treatment can help a person who has an eating disorder feel better and be healthier.
What causes bulimia?
All eating disorders are complex problems, and experts do not really know what causes them. But they may be caused by a mix of family history, social factors, and personality traits. You may be more likely to have bulimia if:
- Other people in your family are obese or have an eating disorder.
- You have a job or do a sport that stresses body size, such as ballet, modelling, or gymnastics.
- You are often on a diet or you exercise too much in order to lose weight or change your body shape.
- Have a poor body image, or feel that your body should be slim like many people in the media.
- You are the type of person who tries to be perfect all the time, never feels good enough, or worries a lot.
- You are dealing with stressful life events, such as divorce, moving to a new town or school, or losing a loved one.
Bulimia is most common in:
- Teens. Like other eating disorders, bulimia usually starts in the teen years. But it can start even earlier or in adulthood.
- Women. But boys and men have it too.
While bulimia often starts in the teen years, it usually lasts into adulthood and is a long-term disorder.
What are the symptoms?
People with bulimia:
- Binge eat on a regular basis. They eat larger amounts of food than most people would in a similar situation, in a short period of time (2 hours or less). During a binge, they feel out of control and feel unable to stop eating.
- Purge to get rid of the food and avoid weight gain. They may make themselves vomit, exercise very hard or for a long time, or misuse laxatives, enemas, water pills (diuretics), or other medicines.
- Base how they feel about themselves on how much they weigh and how they look.
Any one of these can be a sign of an eating disorder that needs treatment.
How can you know if someone has bulimia?
Bulimia is different from anorexia nervosa, another eating disorder. People who have anorexia eat so little that they become extremely thin. People who have bulimia may not be thin. They may be a normal size. They may binge in secret and deny that they are purging. This makes it hard for others to know that a person with bulimia has a serious problem.
If you are concerned about someone, look for the following signs. A person may have bulimia if he or she:
- Goes to the bathroom right after meals.
- Is secretive about eating, hides food, or will not eat around other people.
- Exercises a lot, even when he or she does not feel well.
- Often talks about dieting, weight, and body shape.
- Uses laxatives or diuretics often.
- Has teeth marks or calluses on the back of the hands or swollen cheeks or jaws. These are caused by making oneself vomit.
How is it treated?
Bulimia can be treated with psychological counselling and sometimes medicines, such as antidepressants. The sooner treatment is started, the better. Getting treatment early can make recovery easier and prevent serious health problems.
By working with a counsellor, a person with bulimia can learn to feel better about herself. She can learn to eat normally again and stop purging.
Other mental health problems such as depression often happen with bulimia. If a person has another condition along with bulimia, more treatment may be needed, and it may take longer to get better.
Eating disorders can take a long time to overcome. And it is common to fall back into unhealthy ways of eating. If you are having problems, don't try to handle them on your own. Get help.
What should you do if you think someone has bulimia?
It can be very scary to realize that someone you care about has an eating disorder. If you think a friend or loved one has bulimia, you can help.
- Talk to him or her. Tell the person how much you care and why you are worried.
- Urge him or her to talk to someone who can help, like a doctor or counsellor. Offer to go along.
- Tell someone who can make a difference, like a parent, teacher, counsellor, or doctor. The sooner your friend or loved one gets help, the sooner she will be healthy again.
The cause of bulimia is not clear, but it probably results from a combination of genetics, family behaviours, social values (such as admiring thinness), and other things that can put someone at risk (such as perfectionism).
Your risk for bulimia increases if your parent, sister, or brother has the condition. But family history may be only part of the cause.
Stressful life events such as moving, divorce, or the death of a loved one can trigger bulimia in some people.
Many young women, such as those in university or high school, have unhealthy attitudes toward eating and toward their bodies. Socially, they may accept and encourage destructive behaviours like extreme dieting or binge eating and purging. These beliefs and behaviours are not normal or healthy. They can play a part in developing eating disorders that need treatment. Women who begin to severely restrict their diets in order to lose weight are at risk for bulimia.
Bulimia, like all eating disorders, is a complex physical and psychological condition. Recovery requires treatment that helps you change your behaviour and also deals with the deeper attitudes and feelings that cause you to binge and purge.
Symptoms of bulimia include:
- Repeated binge eating, or eating larger amounts of food than most people would in a similar situation, in a short period of time (2 hours or less).
- Frequently getting rid of the calories you've eaten (purging) by making yourself vomit, fasting, exercising too much, or misusing laxatives, diuretics, ipecac syrup, or enemas. Misuse of these medicines can lead to serious health problems and even death.
- Feeling a loss of control over how much you eat.
- Feeling ashamed of overeating and very fearful of gaining weight.
- Basing your self-esteem and value upon your body shape and weight.
- Thinking about food, your body, or dieting so much that it distracts you from other tasks.
Any of the above symptoms can be a sign of bulimia or another eating disorder that needs treatment. If you or someone you know has any of these symptoms, talk to a doctor, friend, or family member about your concerns right away.
Bulimia and other eating disorders can be hard to diagnose, because people often keep unhealthy thoughts and behaviours secret and may deny that they have a problem. Often a person won't get evaluation and treatment until someone else notices the signs of bulimia and encourages the person to seek the help that he or she needs.
Other signs that a person may have bulimia
Common signs that a person may have bulimia are when the person:
- Is very secretive about eating and does not eat around other people.
- Sneaks food or hides food in the house. You may notice that large amounts of food are missing.
- Has frequent weight changes. For example, the person may gain and lose large amounts of weight in short periods of time.
- Has irregular menstrual cycles.
- Seems preoccupied with exercise.
- Often talks about dieting, weight, and body shape.
- Seems to be overusing laxatives and diuretics.
- Has low levels of potassium or other blood electrolyte imbalances.
- Looks sick or has symptoms such as:
- Tooth decay or erosion of tooth enamel.
- Sore gums or mouth sores.
- Dry skin.
- Loose skin.
- Thin or dull hair.
- Swollen salivary glands.
- Bloating or fullness.
- Lack of energy.
- Teeth marks on the backs of the hands or calluses on the knuckles from self-induced vomiting.
- Feels depressed, anxious, or guilty.
- Shoplifts food, laxatives, or diuretics.
- Drinks large amounts of alcohol or uses illegal drugs and may have substance use disorder.
Conditions that commonly occur with bulimia, such as depression, substance use disorder, or anxiety disorders, can make treatment of bulimia harder. Recovery from bulimia can take a long time. And relapse is common. If the person feels extremely discouraged, be sure to tell the doctor immediately so that the person can get immediate help.
In some cases, people who have an eating disorder may feel suicidal.
If you or someone you know shows warning signs of suicide, seek help immediately.
Bulimia is different from anorexia. People with anorexia have an extremely low body weight. But most people with bulimia are in their normal weight range. Some people who have anorexia make themselves vomit, but this is a different eating disorder. For more information, see the topic Anorexia Nervosa.
When you have bulimia, you judge yourself harshly on your body weight and shape. In order to help cope with these feelings, you follow a strict diet to try to lose weight. But over time, the hunger from your diet triggers you to binge eat. Binge eating may also be triggered by a stressful event, when food gives you a sense of comfort. Feeling guilty and ashamed of binge eating can cause you to purge to avoid weight gain. This starts the cycle of binging and purging that becomes a habit.
As bulimia develops, you may not eat at the beginning of the day. But later you may binge to comfort yourself, especially at the end of a stressful day.
Vomiting causes the body to release endorphins, which are natural chemicals that make you feel good. Eventually you may make yourself vomit even if you have not overeaten so that you can feel good. Soon you lose control over the binge-purge cycle. Repeated vomiting, fasting, exercising too much, or misusing laxatives, diuretics, ipecac syrup, or enemas will eventually cause serious, long-term health problems.
After bulimia becomes a pattern, it is very hard to return to normal eating without help. Unhealthy eating behaviours can continue for many years before a person seeks treatment.
If not treated, bulimia can lead to serious, long-term health problems. It is common for people to hide the condition from others for years. By the time others discover the disorder, many people with bulimia already have serious problems. These range from mild to severe, depending on the type of purging behaviours and how long they have continued. Health problems caused by bulimia include:
- Tooth decay, toothaches, swollen gums, gum disease (gingivitis), and erosion of tooth enamel. These are caused by acid in the mouth from vomiting.
- Electrolyte imbalances and changes in metabolism that can lead to heart problems, such as arrhythmia and even death.
- Dehydration, which can lead to weakness, fainting, or kidney damage.
- Inflammation or tears of the esophagus, which may cause bloody vomit.
- Swollen salivary glands.
- Fainting or loss of consciousness, usually because of low blood pressure.
- Low body temperature.
- Suicide risk when feeling discouraged about having bulimia or a relapse or about ongoing body image issues.
- Long-term problems with bowel movements because of laxative misuse.
Overuse of medicine (such as ipecac syrup) to cause vomiting can lead to diarrhea, weakness, low blood pressure, chest pain, and trouble breathing. A person can die from prolonged overuse of these medicines.
Other mental health problems often occur along with bulimia, which may make treatment take longer or make bulimia harder to treat.footnote 1 These conditions include:
Although bulimia is a long-term disorder linked to serious health problems, it can be successfully treated. Many people with bulimia recover completely with treatment.
Although treatment is usually successful, bulimia is a long-term disorder, and setbacks can occur. A return of symptoms (relapse) might happen. But with ongoing treatment and patience, most people can eventually overcome bulimia.
Bulimia among teens with type 1 diabetes is becoming more common. These teens often lose weight before their diabetes is discovered, then quickly gain weight when treatment begins. Some learn that they can lose weight by skipping insulin doses. This causes poor control of their diabetes and can result in serious problems that can lead to blindness or kidney failure.
What Increases Your Risk
The risk for bulimia or another eating disorder is greatest if a person:footnote 2
When To Call
Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if:
- You have severe anorexia, and starvation has become life-threatening.
- You or someone you know is thinking seriously of suicide or has recently tried suicide. Serious signs include these thoughts:
- You have decided how to kill yourself, such as with a weapon or medicines.
- You have set a time and place to do it.
- You think there is no other way to solve the problem or end the pain.
- You feel you can't stop from hurting yourself or someone else.
If you or someone you know talks about suicide, self-harm, or feeling hopeless, get help right away. Call your provincial suicide hotline or Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566, or go to www.crisisservicescanada.ca for more information.
Call your doctor now if you have been diagnosed with bulimia and now:
- Cannot pass urine.
- Notice that your heart skips beats or beats slower than normal.
- Have severe belly pain, are vomiting up blood, or have black, sticky stools that look like tar. These signs may mean that there is bleeding in the digestive tract.
Call your doctor to discuss bulimia if you:
- Binge and then purge to get rid of food.
- Have lost a lot of weight and can't stop losing weight.
- Fear gaining even a small amount of weight, and this interferes with eating healthy meals.
- Notice that you are secretive or lie about your eating habits.
- See yourself as fat and feel that you must diet, even when other people say you look too thin.
- Have been making yourself vomit or are abusing laxatives or diuretics.
- Are not having menstrual periods when you should.
- Feel the need to exercise a lot, and don't give yourself healing or rest time when you are injured or exhausted.
Watchful waiting is a wait-and-see approach. It's not a good choice if you think you or someone you know may have an eating disorder. Call a doctor or an eating disorder hotline to discuss your concerns and learn what you can do to help.
Examinations and Tests
There is no single test that can diagnose bulimia or any other eating disorder. But these illnesses may have a visible effect on your health and eating habits.
If your doctor thinks that you may have an eating disorder, he or she will check you for signs of problems caused by your diet and purging, such as malnutrition or electrolyte imbalances. He or she also may ask questions about your mental well-being. It is common for another mental health problem (such as depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder) to play a part in an eating disorder.
Common examinations and tests for a possible eating disorder include:
- Questions about your medical history, including your physical and emotional health, both present and past.
- A physical examination to check your heart, lungs, blood pressure, weight, mouth, skin, and hair for diet problems.
- Screening questions about your eating habits and how you feel about your health.
- A mental health assessment to check for depression or anxiety.
- Blood tests to check for signs of malnutrition, such as low potassium levels or other chemical imbalances.
- X-rays, which can show whether your bones have been weakened (low bone density) by malnutrition.
A person can have bulimia and be underweight, average weight, or overweight. Most people with bulimia are in their normal weight range. Many binge in secret and deny that they may have a problem. These factors can make bulimia hard to diagnose.
People with bulimia often seek medical care for related health concerns, such as fatigue or stomach problems caused by repeated vomiting.
Early, accurate diagnosis and treatment of bulimia can decrease the chances of long-term health problems and even death in severe cases. Unfortunately, there is no routine screening for eating disorders. It is common for a person with bulimia to try to hide symptoms, which can make it hard to detect. Most often a loved one thinks that there is a problem and seeks help for bulimia. It is common for a person to have bulimia for a long time and to develop serious health problems before anyone realizes that the person has the disorder.
Treatment for bulimia involves psychological counselling and sometimes medicines such as antidepressants. Treatment does not usually require staying in the hospital, although this is sometimes needed. Both professional counselling and antidepressant medicine can help reduce episodes of binging and purging and help you recover from bulimia. Both are long-term treatments that may require weeks or months before you notice significant results. You may need treatment with counselling and possibly medicines for more than a year.
Bulimia that occurs with another condition may take longer to treat. And you may need more than one type of treatment. If you have another condition that commonly occurs with bulimia, such as depression or substance use disorder, your doctor may want to treat that condition first.
People who seek treatment for bulimia or another eating disorder may have other health problems caused by the disorder. If you have had bulimia for a long time without treatment, or if you have used substances such as laxatives, diuretics, or ipecac syrup to purge, then you may have a health problem such as dehydration that needs treatment first. In serious cases, these conditions related to bulimia may require you to spend time in the hospital.
Initial treatment depends how severe the bulimia is and how long you have had it.
If you have no other conditions that need treatment first, then treatment for bulimia usually consists of:
- Medicines. Antidepressants, such as fluoxetine (Prozac, for example), are sometimes used to reduce binge-purge cycles and relieve symptoms of depression that often occur along with eating disorders. They work best when combined with counselling.
- Psychological counselling. Two types of counselling are useful in treating bulimia. They are cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT). In CBT you learn how to change negative thoughts that you may have about food, your weight, your body, or beliefs about yourself. In IPT you learn how relationships—and feelings about those relationships—affect binge eating and purging.
The goals of CBT are:
- To use nutritional counselling to help you learn how to eat three meals and two snacks a day and avoid unhealthy diets.
- To reduce concern about your body weight and shape.
- To understand and reduce triggers of binge eating by examining your relationships and emotions.
- To develop a plan to learn proper coping skills to prevent future relapses.
The goals of IPT are:
- To identify relationships that are connected to binge eating and purging.
- To learn how emotions that come up from these relationships are related to binge eating and purging.
- To help correct these relationship patterns, so that you won't binge eat or purge in response to bad feelings.
Continuing treatment will depend on the how long you have had bulimia and how severe it is. Continuing treatment usually consists of:
Treatment if the condition gets worse
If you develop other health problems such as dehydration or an esophageal tear because of bulimia, you may need to stay in the hospital or in an eating disorder treatment facility.
Sometimes people with bulimia get discouraged because recovery can take a long time and relapse is common. If you or the person with bulimia feels very discouraged or feels suicidal, call a doctor or other health professional immediately to get help.
What to think about
Treatment with an antidepressant medicine alone may not be enough. Antidepressants work best when combined with psychological counselling. ?
Eating disorders are hard to treat. Recovery may take months to years. The sooner treatment begins, the better the chance for a full recovery.
Unfortunately, many people don't seek treatment for mental health problems. You may not seek treatment because you think the symptoms are not bad enough or that you can work things out on your own. But getting treatment is important.
There is no known way to prevent bulimia. Early treatment may be the best way to prevent the disorder from progressing. Knowing the signs of bulimia and seeking immediate medical care can help prevent long-term health problems caused by bulimia.
There are many ways that adults can help children and teens develop a healthy view of themselves and learn to approach food and exercise with a positive attitude. Doing this may prevent some children and teens from developing this disorder.
Home treatment is very important for people who have bulimia. You will set individual goals along with your doctor, nutritionist, and professional counsellor. Some of these goals may include:
Family members will also need to support the person's goals for healing. Learning about the disorder will be helpful for the entire family. Also, show support of a loved one who has bulimia. Offer support if the person gets discouraged about how long treatment is taking. Listen to his or her feelings.
Medicines such as antidepressants may reduce the frequency of the binge-purge episodes of bulimia. They may also be used to treat other mental health problems, such as depression, that often occur along with bulimia. And you may need antacids to decrease stomach acid or bulk laxatives such as Citrucel to replace the overuse of more harsh laxatives.
Antidepressants are used to reduce the frequency of binge-purge cycles and treat any related depression or anxiety.
What to think about
Sometimes several antidepressant medicines are tried before finding the one that works best. Treatment with medicines is more effective when combined with psychological counselling, which includes nutritional counselling.footnote 4
There is no surgical treatment for bulimia.
In addition to cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT), several types of counselling may be useful in treating eating disorders. Other therapies that may be helpful include:
- Nutritional counselling, which teaches the person to eat three meals and two snacks a day and to avoid unhealthy diets.
- Dialectical behaviour therapy, which is a long-term approach that focuses on helping the person regulate emotions. Coping better with life's challenges and negative emotions should help you reduce the binge-purge behaviours.
- Group counselling, which may enhance individual therapy. Often it is helpful to speak with other people who have this condition.
- Family therapy. Family members can be very helpful to their loved one's recovery, especially for an adolescent with bulimia. Family therapy teaches about the disorder and ways to help.
Organized programs that provide self-help materials, such as manuals or computer-based activities, may be useful in treating eating disorders. But most people who have an eating disorder also need counselling and possibly medicine.
Although it isn't part of the treatment of bulimia, relieving stress can help during recovery. Techniques for managing stress include:
- Writing. Expressing yourself in writing can be a very effective way to reduce your stress level.
- Expressing your feelings. Talking, laughing, crying, and expressing anger are normal parts of the emotional healing process.
- Doing something you enjoy. A hobby or other healthy leisure activity that is meaningful to you can help you relax. Volunteer work or work that helps others can be a powerful stress-buster.
- Learning body-centred relaxation. This includes breathing exercises, muscle relaxation exercises, massage, aromatherapy, yoga, and the traditional Chinese relaxation exercises called tai chi and qi gong.
- Learning stress-reducing activities. These include learning how to relax your body through mindfulness-based stress reduction, meditation, imagery exercises, listening to relaxing music, and using humour.
- Gwirtsman HE, et al. (2008). Eating disorders. In MH Ebert et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment in Psychiatry, 2nd ed., pp. 456–469. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- American Psychiatric Association (2013). Feeding and eating disorders. In Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed., pp. 329–354. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
- Yager J, et al. (August 2012). Guideline Watch: Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Patients With Eating Disorders, 3rd ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association. Also available online: http://psychiatryonline.org/content.aspx?bookid=28§ionid=39113853.
- Steering Committee on Practice Guidelines, American Psychiatric Association (2006). Treating Eating Disorders: A Quick Reference Guide. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Current as of: February 9, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Brian D. O'Brien MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
W. Stewart Agras MD, FRCPC - Psychiatry