Updated: Oct 6, 2020
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Bulimia nervosa (BN) is binge eating, followed by purging. Purging is anything that overcompensates for consuming large amounts of food and can include excessive exercise, vomiting, fasting, unnecessary use of laxatives and diuretics, or enemas.
Recurring episodes of binge eating, characterized by the following:
Eating an excessive amount of food for body size in a small amount of time
Feeling a lack of control while eating
Reactionary behavior to prevent weight gains such as self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or other medications, fasting, or excessive exercise.
Episodes must occur once a week for three consecutive months
A negative perception of body and weight
Events don't necessarily need to occur with anorexia nervosa
Emotional and behavioral
In general, behaviors and attitudes indicate that weight loss, dieting, and control of food are becoming primary concerns
Evidence of binge eating, including the disappearance of large amounts of food in short periods or lots of empty wrappers and containers indicating consumption of large quantities of food
Evidence of purging behaviors, including frequent trips to the bathroom after meals, signs and/or smells of vomiting, presence of wrappers or packages of laxatives or diuretics
Appears uncomfortable eating around others
Develops food rituals (e.g., eats only a particular food or food group [e.g., condiments], excessive chewing, doesn't allow foods to touch)
Skips meals or takes small portions of food at regular meals
Disappears after eating, often to the bathroom
Any new practice with food or fad diets, including cutting out entire food groups (no sugar, no carbs, no dairy, vegetarianism/veganism)
Fear of eating in public or with others
Steals or hoards food in strange places
Drinks excessive amounts of water or non-caloric beverages
Uses excessive amounts of mouthwash, mints, and gum
Hides body with baggy clothes
Maintains extreme, rigid exercise regimen – despite the weather, fatigue, illness, or injury—due to the need to "burn off" calories
Shows unusual swelling of the cheeks or jaw area
Has calluses on the back of the hands and knuckles from self- induced vomiting
Teeth are discolored, stained
Creates lifestyle schedules or rituals to make time for binge-and-purge sessions
Withdraws from usual friends and activities
Looks bloated from fluid retention
Shows extreme concern with body weight and shape
Frequent checking in the mirror for perceived flaws in appearance
Has secret recurring episodes of binge eating (eating in a discrete period of time an amount of food that is much larger than most individuals would eat under similar circumstances); feels lack of control over ability to stop eating
Purges after a binge (e.g. self-induced vomiting, abuse of laxatives, diet pills and/or diuretics, excessive exercise, fasting)
Extreme mood swings
Noticeable fluctuations in weight, both up and down
Bodyweight is typically within the healthy weight range; may be overweight
Stomach cramps, other non-specific gastrointestinal complaints (constipation, acid reflux, etc.)
Abnormal laboratory findings (anemia, low thyroid and hormone levels, low potassium, low blood cell counts, slow heart rate)
Feeling cold all the time
Cuts and calluses across the top of finger joints (a result of inducing vomiting)
Dental problems, such as enamel erosion, cavities, and tooth sensitivity
Dry and brittle nails
Swelling around area of salivary glands
Fine hair on body
Thinning of hair on head, dry and brittle hair (lanugo)
Cavities, or discoloration of teeth, from vomiting
Yellow skin (in context of eating large amounts of carrots)
Cold, mottled hands and feet or swelling of feet
Menstrual irregularities — missing periods or only having a period while on hormonal contraceptives (this is not considered a "true" period)
Poor wound healing
Impaired immune functioning
Many people with bulimia nervosa also struggle with co-occurring conditions, such as:
Self-injury (cutting and other forms of self-harm without suicidal intention)
Impulsivity (risky sexual behaviors, shoplifting, etc.)
Diabulimia (intentional misuse of insulin for type 1 diabetes)
For the most part, the cause of BN is unknown. Research has shown that there isn't one cause connected to every case of bulimia, but a multitude of interchangeable reasons. Not every case is the same. Causes are physiological, biological, and environmental.
Studies have shown a link between bulimia and serotonin levels. Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that affects a variety of psychological and biological factors, including hunger, anxiety, impulsivity, perception, and memory.
Mental Health Disorders. Other mental health disorders can lead to BN. Studies show that half of binge eating disorder patients have a history of depression or other mental illness. Many people report negative emotions associated with bulimia such as anxiety, boredom, anger, and sadness.
Run in Families. Families share not only genetics but also eating habits. Though more research is required, some studies have indicated that eating disorders can be passed down from generation to generation through genetic factors. Parents also pass down their eating habits to their children, so if the parents have a pattern of bulimia, the children will more likely too.
Emotional Trauma. Stress can cause BN, more specifically, stressful life events like divorce, abuse, or death. Eating disorders can be used as a coping mechanism for traumatic experiences.
Weight Problems. One characteristic of bulimia nervosa patients is the fear of gaining weight. Either could come first, BN or weight issues, but there is no dispute that the problems are related.
Body Image. People with a negative body image are more likely to develop an eating disorder. In an obesity study, individuals who were overweight and individuals with binge eating disorder reported that self-esteem related to weight and shape. A negative body image can develop if a person is influenced by media or wants to live up to societal standards or norms. An adverse body image can lead to frequent dieting and overeating.
Bulimia is at a higher prevalence than previously thought. One study concluded that 1.0% of young women and 0.1% of young men met the diagnostic criteria at any given time. A 2007 survey of Americans found that 1.5% of women and 0.5% of men had bulimia during their lifetime. A review paper combined several studies to deduced that 1.1% and 4.6% of women and 0.1% to 0.5% of men would develop bulimia. Though the rate of bulimia nervosa patients hasn't been nailed down, research and clinical reports agree that eating disorder symptoms develop early in both males and females.
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When you don't consume enough calories, the body breaks down its tissue for fuel instead. The first tissue to be used is a muscle, including the heart. The more mass the heart loses, the more pulse and blood pressure drop. The heart has less fuel and cells to pump blood, and the risk of heart failure increases.
The body will reduce its resting metabolic rate to conserve energy.
If the brain and blood vessels can't push enough blood to the brain, it can cause fainting or dizziness, primarily upon standing.
Vomiting or laxatives can deplete body electrolytes. Electrolytes are used to help the heartbeat and other neurological activities. Imbalances in these chemicals can lead to irregular heartbeats, heart failure, and possibly death.