How Bulimia Harms Your Health Over Time

Bulimia nervosa is a mental health condition that belongs to a group of illnesses called eating disorders. All eating disorders create serious, damaging changes in behaviors related to eating food. In bulimia, these changes center on a cycle of food binging and purging.

There are both short- and long-term effects of bulimia. The illness’ short-term impact can be significant. However, even greater harm takes place over time. The long-term effects of bulimia can seriously harm your health. In a worst-case scenario, they can even kill you.

Fortunately, with proper treatment, you can recover from bulimia. The sooner you seek treatment, the better. By doing so, you decrease your risks for serious problems. And if you are already experiencing these kinds of problems, treatment will help limit their impact on your health.

What Is Bulimia?

What Is Bulimia

All people with bulimia go through repeated episodes where they binge on food. The length of those episodes may vary from person to person.

Regardless of the specific length, you consume far more food during that time than the typical person. In addition, this binging behavior is accompanied by a feeling that you have lost control over what you are doing.

To qualify for a bulimia diagnosis, your binges must be followed by some type of food purging. This means that you take action to eliminate the calories you have consumed and avoid gaining weight.

Common actions include purposeful vomiting and improper use of diuretics, laxatives or enemas. Two other behaviors included in the purging category do not involve such direct action.

Instead, they use other means to offset the calories of a binging episode. The first of these behaviors is extreme exercise. The second is avoiding eating through fasting.

For the typical person with bulimia, a binge-purge cycle occurs a minimum of one time per week. In addition, this weekly pattern repeats for a minimum of three months.

People with the illness place a heavy emphasis on the importance of both weight and body shape. If you are affected, you may appear unusually thin. However, you may also have a normal body weight or even be overweight.

Bulimia differs from the two other most common eating disorders, anorexia and binge-eating disorder, in several ways. People with anorexia do not binge on food.

Instead, they put consistent, heavy limitations on their food intake. As a result, they tend to have very low body weights.

Like people with bulimia, people with binge-eating disorder binge on food. However, they do not follow up binging episodes with any kind of purging activity. For this reason, they tend to gain excessive amounts of weight over time.

Roughly 0.3% of all U.S. adults have bulimia. Girls and women develop the condition five times more often than boys and men. Most women develop symptoms in their late teens.

However, risks are elevated for all girls and women between mid-adolescence and early adulthood.  

Over three-quarters of all people with bulimia develop significant problems related to their illness. More than 40% develop severe problems. Well over 90% of people with bulimia also suffer from some other form of mental illness.

Health Effects of Bulimia Short-Term

Some of the problems associated with bulimia can appear even in the short term. Examples of these problems include:

  • Dehydration
  • Nutritional imbalances
  • Lower levels of key body chemicals called electrolytes

It is also possible to eat enough during a binging episode to rupture your stomach.

Health Effects of Bulimia Long-Term

Health Effects of Bulimia Long-Term

The damage of bulimia becomes much more widespread over time. This damage can affect you in multiple ways.

For example, vomiting-related health effects of bulimia long-term include:

  • Recurring or constant sore throat
  • Serious acid reflux
  • Tearing, acid erosion or other types of damage to your esophagus
  • Swollen saliva glands
  • Cavities or other forms of tooth erosion

Whether you purge through vomiting or with laxatives or enemas, the long-term consequences may also include:

  • More serious dehydration
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Constipation and/or unusually hard stools
  • Major electrolyte imbalances
  • An inflamed pancreas
  • Intestinal damage

Potential Life-Threatening Consequences

In some cases, the short and long-term effects of bulimia may be severe or even life-threatening. Problems that fall into this category include such things as:

  • A ruptured stomach
  • A torn or ruptured esophagus
  • Kidney failure triggered by ongoing, extreme dehydration

A severe lack of the electrolyte potassium can lead to major disruptions in your normal heart function. That includes the chance of having a heart attack.

It also includes the chance of developing heart failure. Both of these conditions may have lethal outcomes.

Women With Bulimia

There are also some unique potential long-term effects of bulimia for women. For example, recurring binge-purge cycles can interfere with normal menstruation. As a result, you may have a hard time getting pregnant.

If you do get pregnant, the disorder can increase your chances of experiencing a number of serious problems, including:

  • Giving birth prematurely
  • Having a baby affected by low birth weight
  • Miscarrying
  • Delivering a child affected by some form of birth defect

The presence of bulimia also boosts that odds that you will have to undergo a cesarean section. In addition, it increases your risks for post-partum depression.

Recovery and Treatment Options for Bulimia

Doctors and mental health specialists use a range of options to treat bulimia. The treatment that works best for you will depend on the details of your situation. As a rule, experts rely on the least involved method of treatment needed for an effective recovery.

If you suffer from mild symptoms and lack any other health issues, a bulimia support group may suit your needs. For moderate or severe bulimia, you may need additional help in the form of psychotherapy.

Therapy options used to help people affected by the disorder include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT
  • Enhanced cognitive behavioral therapy, or E-CBT
  • Interpersonal psychotherapy, or IPT
  • Dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT
  • Psychodynamic therapy

People with moderate or severe bulimia may also need help in the form of nutrition therapy or nutritional counseling. Nutrition therapy provides you with medical assistance to recover from the effects of purging.

Nutritional counseling shows you how to develop healthier eating habits.

For some people, the recovery and treatment options for bulimia also include medication. The antidepressant fluoxetine (Prozac) may help adults limit their binge-purge episodes.

It may also help you overcome thought patterns that support bulimia. Doctors also sometimes use antidepressants to treat mental health conditions that occur alongside bulimia.

In rare cases, you may need to start your recovery with a stay in the hospital. That’s especially true if you:

  • Are also affected by symptoms of major depression
  • Have overlapping symptoms of anorexia
  • Require medication to halt your purging behaviors

Two main factors influence your odds for treatment success. First, those odds go up if you are motivated to take part in psychotherapy. They also go up if you have relatively few medical issues related to bulimia.

Long-Term Effects of Bulimia After Recovery

Long-Term Effects of Bulimia After Recovery

Experts emphasize the importance of early treatment for bulimia. This is the best way to avoid major health complications. However, before entering treatment, it is crucial to focus on some stark realities.

First and foremost, almost no one has an easy time recovering from bulimia. In the best of circumstances, the process is difficult and requires ongoing effort.

During treatment, you will likely need multiple forms of help. In addition, it may take time for your treatment team to find the right options for you. These facts mean that your care plan will almost certainly change over time.

You may also continue to experience long-term effects of bulimia after recovery or treatment. Probably the number one issue is a relapse back into food binging and purging. Relapses happen quite often.

However, experts agree that they do not signal the end of your recovery. Instead, they point to a need for additional help and further treatment. Even if you do not relapse, you may continue to experience at least some bulimia symptoms.

Learn More About Avoiding and Treating the Long-Term Effects of Bulimia

What is bulimia? It is an eating disorder involving alternating cycles of binging on food and purging afterward. Anyone can develop symptoms of this disorder. However, girls and women are much more likely to be affected.

Bulimia can interfere with your short-term health. But most of its worst effects appear in the long term. Much of the serious damage related to the disorder is related to purging behavior. That is true whether you purge through vomiting, enemas or laxatives.

You can recover from bulimia with the help of proper treatment. The most effective types of treatment fit your unique situation.

No matter the method used, bulimia recovery is challenging. But success is a realistic goal if you actively engage in the process.

For more information on the long-term effects of bulimia, contact Emerald Isle today. Our experienced staff will help you get a fuller picture of what can happen without treatment. Emerald Isle also specializes in treating the combined effects of bulimia and substance problems.

With help from our customized care plans, you can make the gradual progress needed to recover your mental well-being.