Bulimia is an eating disorder involving a cycle of binging and purging. Bulimics have an overwhelming obsession with food, weight and body image. Periods of overeating are followed by attempts to rid the body of the excess calories by self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxative or enemas, compulsive exercise or calorie restriction. The Academy for Eating Disorders defines a bulimic as someone who engages in this behavior more than twice weekly for more than three months.
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Bulimia can cause life-threatening medical complications. The esophagus, or food pipe, can rupture from forced vomiting. Dehydration and low potassium levels can lead to weakness, muscles fatigue, an irregular heartbeat or heart failure. Chronic constipation, bloating and irregular bowel movements can occur. Anemia, loss of menstrual cycle and stomach ulcers can be possible effects of bulimia. A study conducted by the Department of Clinical Neuroscience, University of North Dakota School of Medicine, showed that bulimia could negatively affect many organs in the body. The research, published in 2006, found that serious medical complications are common in patients with bulimia.
Bulimia can erode tooth enamel, which causes discoloration of the teeth, cavities and gum problems. Swelling of the face, jaw or abdomen may occur from constant vomiting and water retention. Scarring or abrasions of knuckles are common, if fingers are used for vomiting. Weight instability and dry skin and hair can be typical from lack of proper nutrition.
People with bulimia will often have additional emotional and mental health conditions during and after the eating disorder, which will need to be addressed in treatment. A pattern of self-destructive behavior may be prevalent. The University of Maryland Medical Center notes that 30 to 70 percent of patients with bulimia abuse alcohol or other substances. Smoking, sexual promiscuity, self-cutting and other impulsive behaviors may occur without the proper treatment.