What is bulimia nervosa?

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder that has unique characteristics associated with it. There are a number of things which may contribute to someone developing an eating disorder; however there is rarely a single cause. There are a number of signs someone might have bulimia as well as a number of physical effects. Bulimia nervosa can have a seriously negative impact on physical health, so it’s important to find out what you can do to get help if you need it.

This can help if:

  • You’re afraid of putting on weight
  • You often eat more than you need to feel full
  • After you’ve eaten, you try to get rid the food in your body
  • You don’t like eating around other people
  • You’re very critical of your own body
Close up feet on tiles

Characteristics of bulimia nervosa

Bulimia nervosa (also known as bulimia) is a type of eating disorder. The term ‘eating disorder’ is basically used to describe a group of illnesses where a person has a distorted view of body image and extreme disturbances in their eating behaviours.

A major characteristic of bulimia nervosa is the process of eating heaps of food and feeling out of control when doing it, followed by behaviours aimed at getting rid of the calories consumed.

There are many reasons a person may binge in the first place, including as a way of coping with anger, depression, stress and sadness.

What causes bulimia?

Like other eating disorders, bulimia is a combination things going on in a person’s life. However, there are a number of factors that mayincrease the chance of someone developing bulimia.

These include:
  • A high level of concern about appearance, weight or shape
  • Dieting without medical supervision
  • Experiencing difficulty with weight
  • Criticism about weight or appearance
  • Unrealistic appearance goals based on media images
  • Feeling alone or isolated from other people

Common signs of bulimia

Some signs of bulimia include:
  • Eating unusually large amounts of food
  • Being secretive about what is eaten and when
  • Visiting the bathroom after eating
  • Over exercising
  • Being very critical of one's self
  • Being moody and/or depressed
  • Being tired all the time
  • Having problems with your teeth due to the effects of stomach acid
If you are experiencing any of these things, it may be helpful to go and talk with someone you trust like a family member, teacher, counsellor or local doctor.

Physical effects of bulimia

Some of the physical effects of bulimia include:
  • Tooth decay
  • Inflamed, sore throat
  • Severe dehydration
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Inflammation of the oesophagus
  • Severe malnutrition
  • Brain dysfunction
  • Heart failure

What to do if this sounds like you

Many people with eating disorders feel that they are not "sick enough" or "thin enough" to warrant receiving help for their disorder. It is important to remember that eating disorders are psychological disorders that can be treated no matter what stage you’re at.

Even if you’re not sure if you have a diagnosable eating disorder, it’s important that you talk to someone about it if you’re worried. Your concerns should be taken seriously, regardless of what you weigh or of how much or how little you eat.

It can be hard to know where to find the right support you need. ReachOut NextStep is an anonymous online tool that recommends relevant support options based on what you want help with. It can help you work out what's going on and provide personalised support recommendations. Try the ReachOut NextStep tool to learn about the support options available for you.

Recovering from bulimia nervosa is possible, even after years of illness, and the sooner you get help, the sooner you will start to feel a bit better.

What can I do now?

  • Talk to your GP about what’s going on.
  • Get personalised support options for eating disorders with the ReachOut NextStep tool. 
  • Keep in mind that binging and purging can do long lasting damage to your body.
  • Contact The Butterfly Foundation for more info.
Last reviewed: 22 March, 2016
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