Any psychiatric disorder has the potential to seriously impact a person’s well-being. Eating disorders are especially destructive because they affect an individual’s emotional as well as physical health. Because bulimia nervosa can have long-term effects that last for years, early intervention critical is critical.
Bulimia Eating Patterns
- Binging: A person consumes relatively large amounts of food (or food very high in calories) that may contribute to weight gain.
- Purging: After binging, the individual uses various means to rid the body of excess calories. Purging methods include self-induced vomiting, the use of laxatives or diuretics, excessive exercise or a combination of these methods.
Stats and Facts
- In the U.S., an estimated 20 million females and 10 million males will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some point in their lifetimes.1
- Nearly one in 10 people with bulimia have a co-occurring substance use disorder, usually alcohol use.2
- A large eating disorders study found that the median age of bulimia nervosa onset is 12 to 13. The disorder has a suicide rate and mortality rate of 3.9%.3
Potential Long-Term Health Effects of Bulimia Nervosa
Heart Problems: One of the most dangerous potential side effects of bulimia nervosa is related to an imbalance of electrolytes. 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 levels of vital electrolytes such as sodium and potassium. When the body does not have adequate levels of these essential nutrients, the heart begins to beat irregularly. This may result in heart failure or death.
Kidney Damage: Chronic dehydration and malnutrition take a serious toll on the kidneys. A person struggling with bulimia is vulnerable to painful kidney stones and long-term kidney damage. In some cases, the damage may be serious enough to require dialysis or a kidney transplant.
Pancreatitis: This is an inflammation of the pancreas, a gland-organ responsible for secreting insulin, digestive enzymes and hormones. Pancreatitis can occur suddenly, causing symptoms including fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, elevated heart rate and abdominal tenderness and pain. Pancreatitis is potentially life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.
Acid Reflux: A common physical side effect of bulimia, acid reflux is triggered by constant purging, which weakens the muscles that help keep food in the stomach. Partially digested food that has already been mixed with acid and stomach enzymes is pushed back up through the esophagus. Periodically, it can travel back into the throat and mouth. When acid reflux is chronic, it is called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Long-term GERD carries risks such as esophagitis, strictures and a premalignant condition called Barrett’s esophagus. Research has also shown a strong association between chronic GERD and esophageal adenocarcinoma, a rare type of cancer.4
Chronic Constipation: Bulimic individuals often use laxatives as a way to rid the body of excess calories. Unfortunately, laxative abuse can damage nerve endings in the bowel muscles, making it difficult to have normal bowel movements even after laxatives are discontinued. Chronic constipation is a long-term side effect for some recovering bulimics.
Hemorrhoids: Laxative abuse causes frequent, rapid bowel movements that can damage blood vessels in the anus and create internal or external hemorrhoids. Symptoms are often mild and can be treated effectively with over-the-counter remedies. However, hemorrhoids can become quite painful and may require prescription treatment, rubber band ligation or a surgical procedure.
Ruptured Stomach or Esophagus: Also called gastric rupture, a ruptured stomach is thought to be rare in people with bulimia. However, when it occurs, it can be life-threatening. Binge eating associated with bulimia can be so severe that the stomach stretches far beyond its normal capacity. The rupture causes stomach contents including acids to leak into the body.
Many bulimics engage in cycles of self-induced vomiting, creating the potential for tearing of the esophagus. While small tears produce bloody vomit, in severe cases, a large rupture of the esophagus can occur, a rare but life-threatening complication of bulimia. A rupture of the stomach or esophagus requires immediate medical attention.
Swollen Cheeks: Bulimia sufferers are at risk for swollen salivary glands due to self-induced vomiting. Bulimia-related puffiness results in swelling around the cheeks and jawline and is sometimes referred to as “chipmunk cheeks.” The condition subsides when the bulimic is in recovery, but it can take weeks or even months for this side effect to fully disappear.
Tooth Decay: Chronic vomiting takes a serious toll on tooth enamel. Erosion of tooth enamel most often affects the inside surfaces of the teeth. In addition, bulimics often have decreased saliva production that makes teeth more vulnerable to damage. Tooth decay, swollen gums and gum disease are common in those who suffer from eating disorders. The damage can be repaired, but the requisite dental work is costly and may include fillings and crowns.
Irregular or Absent Periods: When the body does not receive adequate nutrition, the brain shuts down non-essential functions. This allows crucial organs to obtain a minimum amount of nutrients necessary for survival. One of the commonly impacted functions in malnourished bulimic females is menstruation. Amenorrhea (period cessation) occurs in up to 50% of women with bulimia, while a significant number of other girls and women experience irregular or light periods.5
Muscle Fatigue: While bulimia generates a tremendous amount of mental fatigue, it also takes a toll on muscles. 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.
Weight Gain: The human metabolism is designed to protect the body as much as possible, especially during times of starvation. Even though bulimics overeat, sometimes consuming several thousand calories in an hour, they purge the food before the body has a chance to absorb it. This deprives the body of key nutrients necessary to carry out critical functions. As a result, the body goes into starvation mode, altering the metabolism.
Whether bulimics try to stop the binge-purge cycle on their own or seek professional treatment, the body continues to conserve calories, resulting in weight gain. This can be especially stressful for people with disordered eating, who often have a profound fear of gaining weight. Although quick weight gain may not seem like a serious physical side effect, it can trigger a relapse in a recovering bulimic.
Eating disorders are hard on the body and mind, resulting in serious, sometimes life-threatening side effects. It is critical to seek early intervention before severe health problems develop. Proper treatment is the best way to overcome the challenges of bulimia. The Ranch Eating Disorder Program specializes in the treatment of women aged 18 and older suffering from bulimia and other eating disorders. At The Ranch, you will find a nurturing, nonjudgmental place where you will work with a multidisciplinary team of compassionate professionals on the many psychological, biological and environmental factors that can fuel bulimia. If you or a loved one is suffering from bulimia, call us today at 888-545-4849.
- Get The Facts on Eating Disorders. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/get-facts-eating-disorders National Eating Disorders Association website. Accessed October 18, 2016.
- Eating Disorder Statistics. National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders website. http://www.anad.org/get-information/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/ Accessed October 18, 2016.
- Prevalence and Correlates of Eating Disorders in Adolescents. National Eating Disorders Association website. http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/prevalence-and-correlates-eating-disorders-adolescents Accessed October 18, 2016.
- Acid Reflux: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments. Medical News Today website. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/146619.php?page=2 Updated July 22, 2015. Accessed October 18, 2016.
- Bulimia Nervosa. Medscape website. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/286485-overview Updated June 7, 2016. Accessed October 18, 2016.