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Bulimia Nervosa: Symptoms, Treatment, and Risk Factors

Bulimia Nervosa | Turning Point of Tampa

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), young women and men can develop bulimia nervosa at any time. People assigned female are more likely to meet the diagnostic criteria associated with this condition than those who are assigned male.

American surveys report that 1.5% of the female population vs 0.5% of the male population has experienced bulimia. Although the numbers may seem unremarkable, these percentages represent millions of people.

Bulimia affects mental and physical health. Learn more about how this condition can develop, the symptoms to look out for, and the treatment options available.

What Is Bulimia Nervosa?

Eating Disorder | Turning Point of Tampa

Bulimia nervosa, commonly called bulimia, is an eating disorder that involves episodes of binge eating followed by purging. There are several methods of purging, such as self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, and the misuse of laxatives and diuretics.

What is Binge Eating?

Binge eating refers to eating a large amount of food in a short period.

Bulimia Nervosa is Different from a Binge Eating Disorder

Note that bulimia nervosa is different from a binge eating disorder. Bulimia nervosa is characterized by the presence of purging behaviors, while the latter is not.

Symptoms of Bulimia Nervosa

People with bulimia exhibit the following signs and physical symptoms:

  • Binge Eating: Eating an unusually large amount of food in a short period is a common bulimia symptom. It also involves feeling out of control while eating, in terms of when and what you eat.
  • Purging Behavior: You may have bulimia if you engage in purging behaviors after binge eating. Such behaviors include self-induced vomiting, over-exercising, and misusing laxatives.
  • Selective Eating: People with bulimia nervosa tend to only eat certain foods or food groups because of an intense fear of weight gain. This symptom can also manifest as feeling disgusted, ashamed, or guilty after eating.
  • Strict Diets: People with bulimia may subject themselves to strict diets and extended fasting sessions or the use of diet pills to make up for their binge eating episodes.
  • Weight Fluctuations: Bulimics often go through weight fluctuations due to their binge-purge cycles. Young people whose bodies are still developing can be especially self conscious of their body shape. Distorted conceptions of a healthy weight often effects one’s self esteem.
  • Mood Swings: Bulimia nervosa can cause drastic mood swings and mental illness. These intense changes in your emotional state usually involve your eating choices.
  • Getting Distracted: Bulimics can develop problems with concentration. Perhaps the nutrient deficiencies that often accompany eating disorders affect their focus.
  • Constant Fatigue: Feeling tired all the time is a common bulimia symptom. The binging and purging cycles can also disrupt your sleep, which can lead to fatigue.
  • Changes in Menstrual Cycle: Bulimia can also cause changes in your menstrual cycle. You could miss periods or have irregular periods if you’re bulimic.
  • Body Image Issues: People with bulimia nervosa often have a negative body image. They may see themselves as overweight, even if they have a normal weight.

Bulimia Nervosa Treatment

Turning Point of Tampa follows the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) authored by the American Psychiatric Association, that states “Bulimia nervosa (BN) severity is based on the number of compensatory behaviors in a week, other symptoms, and degree of functional disability: Mild, Moderate, Severe, Extreme.”

Treating eating disorders at Turning Point of Tampa involves:


This bulimia nervosa treatment focuses on cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT involves talking to a mental health professional. You will discuss your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors associated with eating disorders and a therapist will help you develop healthy coping mechanisms.

Nutritional Counseling:

A nutritional counselor can can teach you about healthy eating habits to treat bulimia nervosa. They can also help you develop a positive relationship with food.

Group Therapy:

Participating in group therapy sessions can be helpful. These sessions offer support from other people with bulimia who are facing similar challenges with food and body image. You can share your experiences and learn from others in the group.


Your doctor may prescribe medications that target the symptoms of bulimia nervosa. Antidepressants can effectively assist in addressing the mental health issues that come with bulimia nervosa, such as depression and anxiety.

Bulimia Nervosa Risk Factors

Bulimic | Turning Point of Tampa

Although there is no definitive answer as to what causes bulimia nervosa, experts have identified several bulimia risk factors. These include:

Family History:

Genetic factors can cause bulimia. If you have family members with bulimia or other eating disorders, you could inherit the biological factors that put you at risk for developing the condition. Be sure to review your family’s medical history with your healthcare provider.

Extreme Dieting:

People are at a higher risk for developing bulimia if they go on trendy diets. Crash diets involve drastically reducing calorie intake, while yo-yo diets involve losing weight when you stop eating and later regaining weight multiple times. When you lose weight quickly, your body can go into starvation mode. Later on, you will give in and end up eating again. Consult with a nutritionist before subjecting yourself to any eating regimen.

Media Influence:

The media can play a role in the development of bulimia. Advertisements and other media images often portray unrealistic body types, putting pressure on audiences to achieve them by any means necessary. Seeing these images can lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. If possible, control your exposure to these images to minimize the likelihood of developing bulimia or other eating disorders.

Stressful Events:

Relationship problems, financial troubles, or the death of a loved one can trigger bulimia nervosa. Even childhood trauma can influence the development of eating disorders. It’s important to have a support system in place to help you deal with stressful situations. Whether you rely on a family member or friend for mental health support, have someone to talk to when things get tough.

Mental Health Conditions:

Bulimia nervosa is often comorbid with other mental disorders. For instance, people with bulimia are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, or substance abuse disorders. If you live with any of these mental health disorders, be sure to seek professional advice to determine whether you have bulimia.

Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse

The National Eating Disorders Association defines bulimia nervosa as “a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by a cycle of bingeing and compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting designed to undo or compensate for the effects of binge eating.”

The presence of bulimia and a substance abuse problem together is called a “co-occurring disorder”. Turning Point of Tampa has been helping men and women recover from co-occurring disorders for over 35 years at our campus in Tampa, Florida.

Bulimia Nervosa Complications

Once someone develops bulimia and lives with the condition, failing to have it treated immediately may damage their physical health. Some serious complications associated with bulimia include:


When you vomit, your body loses fluids and electrolytes. These are minerals that help with muscle function, among other things. You can become dehydrated if you lose too much fluid or don’t drink enough water to replace the fluids you lost. The risk of dehydration increases if you take diuretics, which are drugs that promote urination.

Muscle Loss:

Purging through vomiting or taking laxatives can lead to muscle loss, which can be an unhealthy form of weight loss. When you vomit frequently, you lose electrolytes like potassium and sodium. These electrolytes are essential for muscle function. Laxative abuse can also lead to muscle weakness.

Dental Problems:

Bulimia can damage your teeth and gums. When you vomit, the stomach acid in your vomit comes into contact with your teeth. This contact can lead to tooth decay, gum disease, and bad breath.

Gastrointestinal Problems:

Bulimia nervosa can cause gastritis, which is inflammation of the stomach lining. It can also lead to ulcers, which are sores that form in the lining of your stomach or intestine.

Cardiovascular Problems:

Bulimia increases your risk of developing an irregular heartbeat. This condition, known as arrhythmia, can be potentially life-threatening. Bulimia can also lead to low blood pressure and heart failure.

Fertility Problems:

Bulimia nervosa can disrupt your menstrual cycle, making it difficult to get pregnant. If you’re trying to conceive, seek professional help for your eating disorder.

Fainting Spells:

Combining dehydration and the other conditions that complicate your eating disorder can lead to frequent fainting.


When you binge eat and purge, your body doesn’t get the nutrients it needs to function properly.

Who Can Develop This Eating Disorder?

People assigned female at birth (AFAB) are more likely to develop bulimia than people assigned male at birth (AMAB). However, eating disorders in people who are AMAB are rising in number, regardless of the ratio.

It can happen at any time in adolescence or early adulthood years. Still, it does not stop there. Bulimia affects people of all ages. Even older adults can develop eating disorders, although research suggests that they are often neglected.

Essentially, people of any assigned gender, sexual orientation, age group, or social status can develop bulimia nervosa. If you or someone you know might have bulimia, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.

How To Prevent Bulimia Nervosa

Considering how there are social factors influencing the prevalence of this eating disorder, perhaps the best way to prevent bulimia is by tackling these issues head-on. Although the environmental factors seem like a lot to address, you can prevent contributing to them by starting with your immediate community.

For instance, if eating disorders run in your family, have an open conversation about it with your loved ones. By starting this dialogue, you can break the cycle of eating disorders in your family. You might also want to consult with a genetic counselor to discuss the risks associated with your biological factors.

Another strategy to prevent genetic bulimia from developing is to be mindful of the media you consume. When you see images that might trigger your eating disorder, take a step back. Evaluate why the image is making you feel that way. If necessary, distance yourself from the trigger by spending less time on social media or watching television.

It is also crucial that you develop a balanced, healthy relationship with food. This means not going on fad diets, listening to your body’s hunger cues, and not skipping meals. You can work with a nutritionist to discuss healthy eating behaviors.

In addition, you must learn how to become more accepting of different body types. Understanding that a healthy body can look different from person to person can promote a healthy outlook on life.

When To See a Doctor

You must consider seeking professional help if you recognize any of the bulimia symptoms presented above. Nourishing your body is not meant to be something that causes stress and affects your enjoyment of life.

Consider the following bulimia symptoms as physical signs to seek immediate medical treatment:

  • Acid Reflux: You might experience indigestion and heartburn more frequently when you have bulimia. This is because the act of vomiting can cause stomach acids to come back up your esophagus, irritating the lining and leading to inflammation.
  • Chest Pain: If you have bulimia, you might start to feel chest pain that is not related to heartburn. The pressure from vomiting can cause your chest muscles to spasm.
  • Irregular Periods: When you have bulimia, you might notice your periods become irregular or stop altogether. This is because eating disorders can cause hormonal imbalances that prevent ovulation.
  • Heart Palpitations: You might feel your heart racing or fluttering more often when you have bulimia. This is due to the electrolyte imbalance and dehydration that come with this eating disorder.

Final Words: Identifying Bulimia Nervosa and Treating Bulimic Individuals

Bulimia is an eating disorder characterized by binge eating and purging. Although it is highly treatable, it can still lead to long-term health complications.

With early intervention, you can develop a healthy relationship with food . Moreover, you can take measures to avoid bulimia by being mindful of your eating habits and self-esteem.

Having a balanced relationship with food and accepting different body types lessens the likelihood of developing eating disorders. If you think you might have bulimia, be sure to seek professional help immediately.

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