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Learn more about the signs, causes and treatment of bulimia

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Bulimia is a serious eating disorder that occurs when individuals compulsively overeat (known as bingeing) and then use various destructive methods to purge the food, such as self-induced vomiting, over-exercising, starving or taking laxatives. A binge is defined as eating large quantities of food in a short amount of time. Sometimes, though, sufferers purge after a small meal. During a binge, a person feels out of control or numb, and often can’t even taste the food. After a binge — which usually ends because a person is uncomfortably full — they feel guilty and try to purge the food using the methods mentioned above.

In addition to being preoccupied with food, individuals also obsess over their weight and self-perceived flaws. Bulimia is a potentially life-threatening disorder, but it can be treated and recovery is very much possible.

Signs & Symptoms

Bulimia has two subtypes: the purging type, when a person vomits or takes laxatives to compensate for bingeing; and the non-purging type, when a person starves or exercises. Remember that you can’t tell if someone has bulimia by looking at them. Those with the severest symptoms may be normal weight. Signs and symptoms of bulimia include:

• Inability to control your eating
• Eating large amounts of food in one sitting that people otherwise might eat in one day
• Making yourself vomit
• Taking laxatives or diuretics
• Using diet pills or other weight-loss supplements
• Not eating in front of others
• Going to the bathroom after eating
• Fasting
• Exercising excessively
• Focusing too much on weight and shape
• Having an overly negative body image
• Weight fluctuations
• Depressed mood
• Anxiety
• Stomach pain
• Damaged teeth and gums
• Swollen cheeks
• Irregular period or amenorrhea (when a woman’s menstrual cycle stops)

Causes

Many complex factors combine to cause bulimia. Certain genes may increase a person’s vulnerability. Bulimia also runs in families. Some sufferers have lower levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine. Other contributing factors include: low self-esteem, impulsive behavior, problems managing anger, relationship conflicts and society’s focus on thinness. Dieting is a major trigger for binge eating because of the constant restriction and rules around food.

Treatment

A combination of treatments is effective for bulimia, including psychotherapy and medication. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps individuals identify and reduce destructive thoughts and behaviors. Patients work with their therapists to reduce bingeing and purging and replace these behaviors with healthy ones.

When led by a professional therapist, group therapy is also effective, especially for university students. It lets people share their experiences and see that others are struggling with similar issues.

If you think you or someone you know is struggling with bulimia, it’s important to speak up and get help. Click here to find help on your campus.