Any psychiatric disorder has the potential to seriously impact a person’s well-being. However, eating disorders are especially destructive because they affect both the emotional and physical health of those who suffer from them. In particular, bulimia nervosa can have serious and long-lasting effects on a person’s physical well-being, making early intervention critical.
Bulimia nervosa is a psychiatric disorder in which a person consumes relatively large amounts of food (or food that’s very high in calories and thus may contribute to weight gain) – “binging” – and then uses various means to rid the body of the excess calories – “purging”. Purging methods include self-induced vomiting, the use of laxatives or diuretics, or excessive exercise, or a combination of these. Bulimia largely affects females, with about 1% to 4% of women experiencing it in their lifetime. However, males can develop the disorders as well. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 15% of those suffering from bulimia are male . Regardless of gender, anyone with this eating disorder risks long-term physical health effects.
Following is a brief description of the many potential long-term health effects of bulimia nervosa.
Ruptured Stomach or Esophagus
Also called gastric rupture, a ruptured stomach is thought to be a rare complication of bulimia. However, it’s one that is especially serious because it’s life-threatening. Binge-eating in bulimics can become so severe that their stomach stretches far beyond its normal capacity. This causes a rupture that leaks the stomach’s contents, including acids, into the body.
Likewise, the cycles of self-induced vomiting seen in many bulimics create the potential for tearing of the esophagus. Small tears produce bloody vomit. In severe cases, it’s possible to suffer a ruptured esophagus, making it a rare, but serious, complication of bulimia. A rupture of the stomach or esophagus requires immediate medical attention.
One of the most dangerous potential health effects from bulimia nervosa stems from electrolyte imbalances. A bulimic individual is often dehydrated due to self-induced vomiting, as well as the use of laxatives and diuretics. This causes a decrease in the level of vital electrolytes like sodium and potassium. When the body doesn’t have enough of these essential nutrients, the heart begins to beat irregularly. When this occurs, it can potentially result in heart failure or death.
Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas, a gland-organ responsible for secreting insulin, digestive enzymes, and hormones. Pancreatitis can come on suddenly, causing symptoms like fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, elevated heart rate, and abdominal tenderness and pain. It’s a potentially life-threatening condition and requires immediate medical attention.
A common physical side effect of bulimia is acid reflux. In this condition, partially digested food, which has already been mixed with acid and stomach enzymes, is pushed back up through the esophagus. At times it will travel as far as the throat and mouth. Constant purging in those with bulimia weakens the muscles that help keep food in the stomach, triggering reflux.
Acid reflux is more than simply an uncomfortable nuisance. Over time, the condition causes regular esophageal tissue to be replaced with tissue similar to that found in the intestines. When this occurs, it increases the risk for a rare type of cancer.
Chronic dehydration and malnutrition take a serious toll on the kidneys. A person struggling with bulimia is vulnerable to painful kidney stones as well as long-term kidney damage. In a few cases, the damage may be serious enough to require dialysis or a kidney transplant.
Laxative abuse in bulimics causes frequent, rapid bowel movements that can damage blood vessels in the anus and create internal or external hemorrhoids. Symptoms are often mild, requiring only over-the-counter treatment. However, they can become quite painful and may require prescription treatment, rubber band ligation, or a surgical procedure.
Bulimia sufferers are at risk for swelling around the cheeks and jawline due to self-induced vomiting. The effect is caused by swollen salivary glands. This puffiness in a bulimic is sometimes referred to as “chipmunk cheeks.” It will subside when the bulimic is in recovery, but it can take weeks or even months for the effect to fully disappear.
Irregular or Absent Periods
When the body doesn’t get enough nutrition, the brain shuts down non-essential functions. This allows any available nutrients to go to organs needed for survival. One of these functions that is often impacted in malnourished bulimic females is menstruation. Menstruation problems – typically in the form of irregular or absent periods – occur in approximately 50% of teenage girls and women who suffer from bulimia .
It’s not uncommon for bulimic individuals to use laxatives as a way to rid the body of excess calories. Unfortunately, laxative abuse can potentially damage nerve endings in the bowel muscles, making it difficult to have normal bowel movements even when laxative use has been discontinued. Chronic constipation is a permanent complication for some recovering bulimics.
Chronic vomiting takes a serious toll on tooth enamel, wearing it away – most often on the inside surfaces of the teeth. In addition, bulimics often have decreased saliva production which makes teeth more vulnerable to damage. Tooth decay, swollen gums, and gum disease are common in those who suffer from eating disorder. The damage can be repaired, but the requisite dental work is costly and may include the need for fillings and crowns.
Bulimia generates a tremendous amount of mental fatigue, but it also leads to muscle weakness as well. Malnutrition makes it difficult for muscles and supporting tissues to repair and maintain themselves, leading to achy joints and muscles. This physical side effect lingers until the recovering bulimic begins to maintain a consistent, healthy weight.
Human metabolism is designed to protect the body as much as possible, especially during times of starvation. Even though bulimics overeat, sometimes consuming as many as several thousand calories in an hour, they purge the food before the body has a chance to absorb it. This deprives their body of the nutrients it needs to carry out critical functions. As a result, their body goes into starvation mode, altering their metabolism.
When bulimics try to stop the binge-purge cycle on their own or enters treatment, their body continues to conserve calories. This makes it very easy for them to gain weight faster than normal. This can be especially stressful for anyone with a fear of gaining weight that’s so profound they’ve developed disordered eating. Although quick weight gain doesn’t seem like a serious physical side effect, it can trigger a relapse in a recovering bulimic.
Eating disorders are particularly hard on the body. Early intervention is critical for anyone suffering from bulimia nervosa. Don’t wait until serious health problems develop, such as a ruptured esophagus or pancreatitis. Proper treatment is the best way to overcome the challenges of bulimia. Consult an eating disorder specialist at a treatment center to learn more about starting the healing process.