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Bulimia Nervosa

What Is Bulimia?

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder marked by bouts of out-of-control binge-eating followed by self-induced vomiting or use of laxatives or diuretics to purge. People with bulimia may use other compensatory behaviors after bingeing, such as fasting or overexercising. There is no way to tell by looks alone whether a person is bulimic, and both bingeing and purging are done secretly. People with bulimia often have coexisting psychological illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, or substance use disorder. Purging may lead to any of a number of physical dysfunctions, including electrolyte imbalances, gastrointestinal troubles, and dental problems. An estimated 1 to 4 percent of females have bulimia nervosa during their lifetime. The prevalence in males is unknown, but bulimia nervosa is far less common in males than females. The disorder most commonly begins in the late adolescence and early 20s, but can go undetected until the 30s or 40s. For more on causes, symptoms and treatments, see our Diagnosis Dictionary.

Developing and Treating Bulimia

Bulimia can be triggered by dieting, stress, or uncomfortable emotions such as anger and sadness. Purging and other actions to prevent weight gain are ways for people with bulimia to feel more in control of their lives and to ease stress and anxiety. Many factors contribute to the development of bulimia, such as genetics, traumatic life events, cultural ideals of beauty, pressure from family members, and personality traits such as low self-esteem. Treatments for bulimia often involve a combination of options. Psychotherapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy specifically tailored to treat bulimia, has been shown to be effective in changing bingeing and purging behavior and improving attitudes towards eating. People with bulimia may also undergo nutritional counseling or take the antidepressant fluoxetine (Prozac), which is approved by the FDA to treat bulimia.

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