What is Bulimia Nervosa?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 16 June 2019
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Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by episodes of binging on food followed by attempts to compensate for the overeating in some way. This mental illness is most commonly seen in young women and appears to be more frequent in white, middle class women although people of all genders, ages, races, and social classes can develop the disorder. If it is not treated, this condition can lead to serious complications, including death.

Also known simply as bulimia, this condition can be accompanied with other mental illnesses such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, or anxiety. The patient usually expresses dissatisfaction with body weight and type. Because patients with this disorder typically remain of normal weight or slightly overweight, they can be difficult to identify until advanced symptoms of bulimia start to develop.

Binging behavior for patients with bulimia nervosa can feel out of control. The patient may eat until physical pain occurs and usually patients are not very discriminating during a binge. They will eat whatever is available, even if it makes them feel ill. Binging is often done secretively out of shame.


The way in which patients compensate for a binge falls into two categories. In purging bulimia nervosa, the patient follows a binge with vomiting, laxatives, or diuretics in an attempt to eliminate the excess calories. In non-purging bulimia nervosa, patients use other measures to compensate for the binge. They may fast to make up for the calorie intake or they may exercise. Patients can injure themselves by exercising too hard or too long.

Over time, bulimia nervosa can lead to gastrointestinal problems, heart arrhythmias, kidney damage, electrolyte imbalances, muscle pain and weakness, damage to the dental enamel, and fatigue. If the condition persists without treatment, the patient's organs can start to fail, resulting in coma or death.

Treatment for bulimia nervosa involves counseling, including both psychiatric and nutritional counseling, and sometimes medications such as antidepressants to help the patient stabilize. Medical problems caused by the bulimia nervosa, such as gastroesophageal reflux in patients with purging bulimia, may also need to be addressed.

Bulimia nervosa is something that a patient will live with for life, even after initial recovery. Patients may be at risk of lapsing into disordered eating habits and they can also experience side effects as a result of the damage caused to the body by bulimia. For example, patients with a history of bulimia can be at increased risk of cardiovascular events such as heart attacks later in life.



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