Bulimia nervosa is a potentially life threatening disorder which is characterized by periods of bingeing and purging, preoccupation with body shape, body type and body weight, and a poor self-image.
Binge eating involves eating large amounts of food (typically in private, or secretly) with no sense of control over how much or what is being consumed. Bingeing periods are followed by purging, which can take shape in many vicious forms such as the abuse of diuretics, laxatives and enemas to induce vomiting, over consumption of unhealthy weight-loss supplements, strict dieting and fasting, extreme workouts, and self-starvation in order to keep the calories at an excessively minimal level.
The bulimia nervosa symptoms are not just restricted to food, over occupation with weight loss, and other behavioural symptoms. Instead, these behavioural symptoms point at a direction which is much more important. Bulimia nervosa is more about the lack of self-esteem and distorted image of the self. Hence, it can be difficult to recover from without a proper bulimia treatment plan.
Signs and Symptoms of Bulimia
Bulimia symptoms can be categorized into the categories of emotional, behavioural and physical. Some of the major signs and symptoms of bulimia nervosa are as follows:
- Significant fluctuations in weight, inches (both increases and decreases)
- Body weight within normal weight range, may be overweight
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Stomach cramps
- Anemia, thyroid and hormonal problems, low blood cell counts, low potassium, slowed down heart rate
- Difficulty concentrating, dizziness, fainting
- Feeling cold all the time
- Sleep problems
- Cuts and calluses
- Dental problems such as enamel erosion, cavities and tooth sensitivity
- Dry, yellow and scaly skin, fine hair all over the body (lanugo)
- Menstrual irregularities
Behavioural and Emotional Symptoms:
- Behaviours that indicate dieting, weight loss, control of food
- Evidence of binge eating (disappearance of food, fridge emptying often, wrappers lying around, empty cartons in the dustbin, etc.)
- Evidence of purging (signs and smells of vomiting, frequent bathroom trips, packaging of laxatives, diuretics, etc.)
- Eating privately
- Food rituals (eating only a particular kind of food at one particular place, chewing too much, etc.)
- Hoarding of food in places
- Hiding body with baggy clothes
- Showing extreme concerns with body weight, shape, etc.
- Extreme moodiness
- Self injury like cutting, etc. without the presence of suicidal ideation (in some cases)
- Substance abuse
The exact causes of bulimia are currently not known to the researchers, however, some risk factors have been identified that could lead to the development of bulimia nervosa.
It is a known fact that girls and women are more likely to have this disorder than boys or men are and begins in late adolescence or the onset of adulthood. The factors that may increase your likelihood of developing bulimia include having first-degree relatives with an eating disorder, being obese or overweight during childhood, psychological problems such as depression and anxiety issues, having witnessed or experienced traumatic events in the past, dieting frequently, etc.
Diagnosis for Bulimia
If your doctor suspects that you have bulimia nervosa, then they may assess you in the following ways:
- At first, they will ask you about your weight-loss or weight-gain, eating habits, and the way you have been losing weight, etc.
- Then they may conduct a physical examination to check for any underlying medical conditions and to assess the severity of the physical symptoms.
- Then they will request for blood and urine tests, along with electrocardiogram (ECG)V test reports.
- They will then conduct a psychological evaluation and use the criteria listed in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) for diagnosing bulimia nervosa.
Treatments for Bulimia
Bulimia treatment involves psychotherapy, nutrition counselling, medication, and the aid of dieticians. The first goal of the treatment could be helping the client gain in fitness and health and making them realize that the way they perceive their body and food is not only a problem; it is terribly unhealthy and can critically damage their overall health.
A proper action plan is made for the treatment of bulimia nervosa which also addresses the client’s distorted thinking patterns, and assists them in making behavioural changes in order to live a better, healthier life. Psychotherapy for bulimia often involves cognitive behavioural therapy to help target the distorted thinking patterns and the unhealthy behaviours. During the course of the bulimia treatment, the patients learn the value of a balanced diet. Medications like prozac, SSRIs can be prescribed to help reduce the emotional symptoms. Nutrition education is also integrated into the treatment plan. Dieticians help design a proper eating plan through which healthy eating habits are inculcated into the client’s routine. Eating regularly without unhealthy restrictions is given prime importance in this plan.
The treatment of bulimia is generally long term, as relapse can be possible at any given moment. Social support from close friends and family plays an important role in the recovery process.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q. Do alternative medicines like herbal products and weight loss supplements help prevent or cure bulimia?
No. In fact, such supplements may be abused by people with bulimia nervosa to the extent that it may critically harm them. Such alternatives, more often than not, have serious side effects and for someone with a psychological disorder like bulimia nervosa, they may do much more harm than any good. Often, such products are not even approved by the governmental authorities and might not be safe for consumption.
Anorexia nervosa, or more commonly referred to as just “anorexia” (a term which refers to self-starvation and lack of appetite), is an eating disorder in which a person experiences extreme weight loss, an intense fear of gaining weight, severely distorted body image and perception of weight.
BMI or body mass index is a tool that is used to assess the body weight relative to someone’s height, and is used by treatment providers to judge the appropriateness of the body weight of a person suffering from anorexia nervosa, or any other eating disorder. Other parameters which can be assessed are eating patterns, personality traits, exercising patterns, etc. which can help in the diagnosis of anorexia nervosa. People with anorexia nervosa go to extreme extents to lose weight to achieve a particular kind of body shape and body weight. This tends to interfere with their daily functioning, and rapidly affects their physical as well as psychological health directly. Anorexia symptoms include extreme efforts to lose weight and reduce calorie intake such as severely restricting the amount of food eaten, or inducing vomiting by abusing laxatives, diuretics, enemas, etc. They also work out severely in order to lose weight. Anorexia is less about body weight, food, and working out. It is in fact more of an intensely unhealthy way to cope with one’s emotional problems. People with anorexia have a severely contorted image of the self. They tend to equate being thin with self worth.
Anorexia nervosa is in fact the most lethal psychiatric disorder. However, with proper treatment, as patients gain insight and develop a better sense of self, recovery is enabled and they return to healthier habits and routines.
Types of Anorexia Nervosa
The two most common types of anorexia nervosa are:
- Binge/Purge Type: Those with binge/purge type anorexia purge after eating their meals, as they feel guilty and ashamed of eating anything that they want to restrict or anything that isn’t known to be “healthy” and alleviates their fear of gaining weight. The purge behaviour that is used to compensate for eating involves exercising excessively and abusing laxatives, diuretics, enemas, etc.
- Restrictive Type: People with restrictive type anorexia try to restrict food amounts, calories, and high fat or high sugar foods. They eat very less in terms of calories, macro and micro nutrients, portion size and/or the number of meals taken in a day. The amount they eat is too less for anyone who would want to remain fit and healthy. This is a form of self-starvation under the guise of appearing self-disciplined.
Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa
There are physical, behavioural, and emotional symptoms of anorexia nervosa. All these symptoms are interlinked and, while it may be difficult to notice the early signs of anorexia as some may not appear as extremely thin as people with anorexia can get, even though they may be experiencing all three dimensions of symptoms severely. People with this disorder also try to hide their symptoms under the guise of “fitness,” and they try to not show their extreme behaviour in public. People with anorexia often tend to have their meals privately, and hide their laxatives and diuretics. The symptoms of anorexia are discussed more in depth below:
The physical signs and anorexia symptoms are largely related to starvation. They are as follows:
- Extreme loss of weight and not making expected weight gain related to development
- Very thin appearance
- Intense fatigue, dizziness, or fainting
- Severe loss of muscle mass
- Hypothermia (low body temperature, cold hands and feet)
- Upset stomach, bloating, constipation
- Dry and scaly skin
- Lanugo, i.e fine downy hair growing on the body and increased facial hair
- Loss of bone density or osteoporosis
- Abnormal heart rhythm
- Alopecia/hair loss
- Eroded teeth, calluses on knuckles
- Yellowish skin
- Absence of or disturbance in menstruation cycle
- Bluish discoloration of fingernails
Emotional and Behavioural Symptoms
- Severely reducing food intake and fasting in order to reduce calorie intake
- Overly worried about calorie intake, preoccupation with food, cooking elaborate meals for others and not eating them
- Excessive exercising
- Bingeing and self-induced vomiting by abusing diuretics, laxatives, enemas, diet aids, herbal products
- Not eating in public
- Spitting food out after chewing
- Social withdrawal and irritability
- Flat affect (lack of emotion)
- Reduced sex drive
- Wearing many layers of clothes
- Frequently checking mirror
- Complaining about perceived flaws of the body, like saying some specific parts of their body are too fat, etc.
- Skipping meals, refusing to eat
- Repeated weighing and measuring of the body, fear of gaining weight
- Lying about their food intake (saying they have eaten more than what they actually have)
- Denying hunger and making excuses for skipping meals and not eating
Diagnosis of Anorexia Nervosa
Early diagnosis of anorexia increases the chances of quicker recovery and prompt treatment. The patient will have to be taken to a physician, who may ask them about their weight loss and for females, about their menstruation cycle. It can take a lot of time to confirm a diagnosis if the patient was overweight or obese earlier.
Then, the physician may perform some medical exams (including imaging scans, blood tests, electrocardiogram [ECG]) in order to rule out the following conditions that could be the underlying cause of the symptoms:
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Addison’s disease
- Chronic infections
- Immunity related problems such as immunodeficiency
- Malabsorption of nutrients
Then, a psychiatrist may assess the patient on the diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa as given by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This includes restricting food intake to the extent that leads to very low body weight relative to age, sex, height, and health, an intense fear of gaining weight even when being underweight, and a distorted perception of one’s own body.
Treatments of Anorexia Nervosa
Anorexia treatment involves psychotherapy, nutrition counselling, medication, and the aid of dieticians. The first goal of the treatment could be helping the client gain in fitness and health and making them realize that the way they perceive their body and food is not only a problem; it is terribly unhealthy and can be lethal.
A proper action plan is made for the treatment of anorexia nervosa which also addresses the client’s distorted thinking patterns, and assists them in making behavioural changes in order to live a better, healthier life. Psychotherapy for anorexia often involves cognitive behavioural therapy to help target the distorted thinking patterns and the unhealthy behaviours. During the course of the anorexia treatment, the patients learn the value of a balanced diet. Medication is used to reduce the emotional symptoms and help reach the ideal weight.
The treatment of anorexia is generally long term, as relapse can be possible at any given moment. Social support from close friends and family plays an important role in the recovery process.