Bulimia nervosa is a serious and sometimes life-threatening eating disorder affecting mainly young women. People with bulimia, known as bulimics, consume large amounts of food (binge) and then try to rid themselves of the food and calories (purge) through fasting, excessive exercise, vomiting, or use of laxatives. Bulimics often feel that the behavior serves to reduce stress and relieve anxiety. Because bulimia results from an excessive concern with weight control and self-image, and is often accompanied by depression, it is also considered a psychiatric illness.


Bulimia nervosa is a serious health problem for more than two million adolescent girls and young women in the United States. The bingeing and purging activity associated with this disorder can cause severe damage, even death, although the risk of death is not as high as for anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder that leads to excessive weight loss.

Binge eating may in rare instances cause the stomach to rupture. In the case of purging, heart failure can result due to loss of vital minerals such as potassium. Vomiting causes other serious problems, including acid-related scarring of the fingers (if used to induce vomiting) and damage to tooth enamel. In addition, the tube that brings food from the mouth to the stomach (the esophagus) often becomes inflamed and salivary glands can become swollen. Irregular menstrual periods can also result, and interest in sex may diminish.

Most bulimics find it difficult to stop their behavior without professional help. Many typically recognize that the behavior is not normal, but feel out of control. Some bulimics struggle with other compulsive, risky behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse. Many also suffer from other psychiatric illnesses, including clinical depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Most bulimics are females in their teens or early 20s. Males account for only 5-10% of all cases. People of all races develop the disorder, but most of those diagnosed are white.

Bulimic behavior is often carried out in secrecy, accompanied by feelings of guilt or shame. Outwardly, many people with bulimia appear healthy and successful, while inside they have feelings of helplessness and low self-esteem.


The cause of bulimia is unknown. Researchers believe that it may be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Bulimia tends to run in families. Research shows that certain brain chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, may function abnormally in acutely ill bulimia patients. Scientists also believe there may be a link between bulimia and other psychiatric problems, such as depression and OCD. Environmental influences include participation in work or sports that emphasize thinness, such as modeling, dancing, or gymnastics. Family pressures also may play a role. One study found that mothers who are extremely concerned about their daughters' physical attractiveness and weight may help to cause bulimia. In addition, girls with eating disorders tend to have fathers and brothers who criticize their weight.


According to the American Anorexia/Bulimia Association, Inc., warning signs of bulimia include:

  • eating large amounts of food uncontrollably (bingeing)
  • vomiting, abusing laxatives or diuretics, or engaging in fasting, dieting, or vigorous exercise (purging)
  • preoccupation with body weight
  • using the bathroom frequently after meals
  • depression or mood swings
  • irregular menstrual periods
  • onset of dental problems, swollen cheeks or glands, heartburn or bloating


Bulimia is treated most successfully when diagnosed early. But because the bulimic may deny there is a problem, getting medical help is often delayed. A complete physical examination in order to rule out other illnesses is the first step toward diagnosis.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, a diagnosis of bulimia requires that a person have all of the following symptoms: >

  • recurrent episodes of binge eating (minimum average of two binge-eating episodes a week for at least three months)
  • a feeling of lack of control over eating during the binges
  • regular use of one or more of the following to prevent weight gain: self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives or diuretics, strict dieting or fasting, or vigorous exercise
  • persistent over-concern with body shape and weight


Alternative therapies may be used as complementary to conventional treatment program for bulimic patients. They include diet, nutritional therapy, herbal therapy, homeopathy, hydrotherapy, biofeedback training, hypnotherapy, massage therapy and light therapy.


The following dietary changes may be helpful for bulimic patients:

  • Eat small but nutritious meals at regularly scheduled hours.
  • Avoid sweet, baked goods or any other foods that may cause craving.
  • Avoid allergenic foods.
  • Limit intake of alcohol, caffeine, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and salty foods.

Nutritional therapy

The following supplements may help improve bulimic symptoms and prevent deficiency of essential vitamins and minerals:

  • Multivitamin and mineral supplement to prevent deficiency of essential nutrients.
  • Vitamin B complex with C.
  • Zinc supplement. Bulimic patients may have zinc deficiency, and zinc is an important mineral needed by the body for normal hormonal activity and enzymatic function.


A homeopathic physician may prescribe patient-specific remedies for the treatment of bulimia.

Light therapy

Light therapy. Exposure to artificial light, available through full spectrum light bulbs or specially designed "light boxes," may be useful in reducing bulimic episodes, especially during the dark winter months.


Hypnotherapy may help resolve unconscious issues that contribute to bulimic behavior.


Yoga, qigong, t'ai chi or dance not only make patients physically healthier but also make them feel better about themselves.

Other treatments.

Other potentially beneficial treatments for bulimia include Chinese herbal therapy, hydrotherapy or biofeedback training.

Allopathic treatment

Early treatment of bulimia with a combination of drug and behavioral therapies is necessary to prevent serious health consequences. A comprehensive treatment plan is called for in order to address the complex interaction of physical and psychological problems of bulimia.

Behavioral approaches include individual psychotherapy, group therapy, and family therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which teaches patients how to change abnormal thoughts and behavior, is also used. Nutrition counseling and self-help groups are often helpful.

Antidepressants commonly used to treat bulimia include desipramine (Norpramin), imipramine (Tofranil), and fluoxetine (Prozac). These medications also may treat any co-existing depression.

In addition to professional treatment, family support plays an important role in helping the bulimic person. Encouragement and caring can provide the support needed to convince the sick person to get help, stay with treatment, or try again after a failure. Family members can help locate resources, such as eating disorder clinics in local hospitals or treatment programs in colleges designed for students.

Expected results

Bulimia may become chronic and lead to serious health problems, including seizures, irregular heartbeat, and thin bones. In rare cases, it can be fatal.

Timely therapy and medication can effectively manage the disorder and help the bulimic look forward to a normal, productive, and fulfilling life.


There is no known method to prevent bulimia.


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American Anorexia/Bulimia Association, Inc. 293 Central Park West, Suite IR, New York, NY 10024. (212) 501-8351.

Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc. PO Box 5102, Eugene, OR 97405. (541) 344-1144.

Center for the Study of Anorexia and Bulimia, 1 W. 91st St., New York, NY 10024. (212) 595-3449.

Eating Disorder Awareness & Prevention, Inc. 603 Stewart St., Suite 803, Seattle, WA 98101. (206) 382-3587.

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. Box 7, Highland Park, IL 60035. (708) 831-3438.

National Eating Disorders Organization. 6655 South Yale Ave, Tulsa, OK 74136. (918) 481-4044.

Mai Tran