Bulimia Nervosa is not as well known as Anorexia. The two eating disorders are quite different although many sufferers can exhibit symptoms of both eating disorders, or even swing from one to the other.
Bulimia sufferers are often of typical weight (neither overweight or underweight). The typical bulimic will vomit (sometimes called purging) up their food shortly after consumption. This is often combined with abuse of laxatives or diuretic pills. Many bulimics follow a cycle called the "Binge - Purge cycle". They often have bouts of eating large amounts of high-calorie foods shortly followed by a purging episode where the food is "purged" before it can begin digestion. However just as everyone is unique, no eating disorder sufferer is quite like the other. Some bulimics rarely binge, but may often purge. In this situation their weight will begin to drop to unhealthy levels.
Note: Many times during this article, the sufferer is referred to as she. Most sufferers are female, but there are also many men who suffer from Bulimia. However the majority of cases are women and girls.
Causes and Symptoms of Bulimia
To blame an eating disorder simply on image or desire to be thin, would be a gross over-simplification. However there is absolutely no doubt that the body image obsession is a major causal factor in the high incidence of bulimia in Western society. Many girls that begin a bulimic lifestyle tend to start on or before puberty - a critical stage of development where most of us begin to form lifelong beliefs about ourselves.
What can start as a seemingly innocent and desperate attempt to control weight can unfortunately evolve into a long-suffering and dangerous addiction.
Many sufferers of bulimia use food as a means of control, and when peeling back the layers, one can often find issues of control lying at the root of bulimia. The sufferer may struggle to "take control of their lives", or maybe there is a strong figure of control in their lives (sometimes their mother). Food is about the only thing that the bulimic can control, and it becomes her escape - the "one thing that she has for herself". However each vomiting or purging episode is often followed by shame, and maybe a deep sense of disgust. The sense of shame can then lead to wanting to gain back control... and since the only thing the bulimic can control is food - thus begins the cycle of addiction.
Every person is unique, and any description will be a gross generalization. There are other factors that can sometimes be found in the history of a bulimic sufferer - sometimes there may have been incidences of sexual abuse during childhood, and often, the child was overweight and experienced some of the jeers and teasing that went along with this. The child may have also been "dieting" from a young age.
Due to the shame involved, the bulimic can often be extremely secretive, making it difficult to truly know what is going on. Some of the more obvious symptoms include:
- Scab or callouses on knuckle (from sticking fingers down throat)
- Trips to the bathroom after every meal
- Substantial tooth decay due to increased contact with stomach acids
- Unusual symptoms such as cramps in certain joints (due to lack of potassium)
- Heart palpitations and irregular heartbeats (due to lack of potassium and sodium)
- Spells of fainting, fatigue, or weakness due to electrolyte imbalance
- Rapid weight loss
- Large consumption of food at meal times
- Slight swelling at the back of the cheeks (back of the jaw). This is due to a swelling of the salivary glands.
Consequences of Bulimia
What is the future for a young woman who suffers from Bulimia?
As her weight drops below healthy levels she may experience a cessation of menstruation. Her metabolism will also become very confused, and slow down considerably, therefore setting her up for weight problems in the future. The constant abuses can begin to cause significant damage to the digestive system, and affect other parts of the body such as skin tone, hair, nails, and teeth - as the body struggles to find the nutrients it needs. The major nutrient problem is the loss of Potassium (K). Potassium (among other things) helps to regulate the heart and in chronic cases, the bulimic must be hospitalized as her body is so low in Potassium that some functions begin to suffer.
There is not much of a future for the bulimic. Why it initially seems that they have got control of their weight, the addiction slowly gains control of their life, affecting their health and their relationships with others.
Healing and Recovery
The incidences of Bulimia in our society are disturbingly high. Statistics are difficult to come by as Bulimia is often a secretive addiction. While anorexics can often be identified by their extremely low weight - many bulimics are often of a more "normal" size and weight.
Perhaps the first and most difficult step a sufferer can take is to admit they have a problem and to tell someone. Indeed until you admit you have a problem, you cannot begin to receive healing. It is difficult to tell someone due to the shame involved, but this first step can be one step along the road to freedom. Often as a first step, the sufferer can see their GP or medical/family physician, who can then refer the patient on to more specialized treatment.
There is no quick solution, no easy answers. Humans are complex creatures with complex personalities. Bulimia is not normally something that can be healed quickly. Often the patterns and addictions involved have taken years to form, and may take years to unlearn.
There is hope! and there are many sufferers who are free of the disorder after many years of addiction.
A bulimic sufferer can benefit from counseling or therapy. However this must be something she can choose for herself (often only after admitting she has a problem). Sometimes being forced to take therapy simply highlights the lack of control she feels she has over her life. This makes it difficult for very young sufferers (early to mid-teens) to receive counseling - as the often do so at the request of their parents.
Some hospitals have Eating Disorder Clinics - both inpatient and outpatient. Some people find support groups can be beneficial.
The drug Prozac (generic name Fluoxetine) is often prescribed for Bulimic sufferers, as it can help to break the addictive patterns. However, like any medication, it can only serve to "break the back" of the symptoms, and the deeper issues must be addressed through psychotherapy or counseling.
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