What Are the Health Risks of Bulimia?

Eating disorders like bulimia are incredibly serious. In fact, eating disorders are second only to opioid use disorders when researchers rank deadly mental illnesses. (1) Untreated bulimia can lead to heart disease, digestive distress, and kidney disease. In the long term, it can also weaken your bones, leading to osteoporosis. People with bulimia have an increased mortality risk compared to those without the disorder.

Author | Bulimia.com Staff

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TABLE OF CONTENTS | Heart | Digestive Tract | Kidneys | Oral Health | Risks | Treatment

Here’s the good news: Bulimia is treatable, and most of the very serious health problems associated with the disorder can be reversed. 

The key is to get treatment early and stick with the treatment program for the rest of your life. With ongoing care and support, you can effectively manage bulimia, helping you to embrace a healthy future.

Bulimia & Your Heart 

Bulimia is characterized by episodes of bingeing (overeating a great deal in a short time) and purging (using laxatives or vomiting to remove calories). Doctors say the purge step involved in bulimia causes heart disease. 

Purging removes more than calories from your body. You will also remove electrolytes like potassium and sodium. Your heartbeats are triggered by electrical impulses, and they need electrolytes to work. 

The longer you purge, the deeper your electrolyte imbalance and the more often your heart beats irregularly. In time, your heart can weaken or even fail. 

In studies, researchers found that women hospitalized for bulimia had four times the risk of heart attacks and strokes than other women. And among every 1,000 people with bulimia, about 10 will get heart disease each year, and 3 will die of it. (2)

Patient and doctor

Bulimia & Your Digestive Tract

People with bulimia are in a battle with digestion. They crave large meals, but they want to stop each bite from being fully digested. The way you fight your body can have a deep impact on your health. 

Three major digestive systems are harmed by continued bulimia. (3)

1. Bowels

Almost 70% of people with bulimia have irritable bowel syndrome. You may feel constipated for long stretches of time, and you may have several days during which you face relentless diarrhea. 

Almost 70% of those suffering from bulimia have irritable bowel syndrome.

Bowel troubles can stem from electrolyte imbalances, but they can also begin with laxative abuse. Over-the-counter tools are meant for intermittent use. 

Leaning on them repeatedly can cause such steep dehydration and damage that you can’t function without them. You’ll need a special diet and a bowel retraining program to get better. 

2. Stomach

During a binge, some people eat so quickly that they feel bloated and are often in pain. Your stomach is meant to hold a small amount of food, but when you binge, you might take in an entire day’s worth of calories in one sitting. That feeling of fullness often entices people to purge. 

Some people with longstanding bulimia feel pressure and nausea constantly, even when they’re not bingeing. You may also be unable to tell when you’re full after eating, as your stomach isn’t communicating with the brain properly.

3. Esophagus

Regular vomiting puts delicate throat tissues in contact with stomach acids. Repeated episodes can damage your esophagus and the tissues that keep your stomach closed. You might develop heartburn symptoms, and you might regurgitate food when you burp. 

Some people develop esophageal tears from repeated vomiting. But many more develop longstanding throat and chest pain from esophagus burns.

Bulimia & Your Kidneys 

Toxins in your bloodstream are the focus of a kidney’s work. Fluids are required, so your kidneys can mix up waste and push it out of the body through urine. Regular purging can leave you dehydrated, which damages your kidneys.

Bulimia can lead to kidney stones and infections.

You can develop acute kidney problems, such as kidney stones and infections. But you might not notice long-term damage until much later. Some people die due to kidney damage caused by bulimia. (4)

How Bulimia Affects Your Oral Health

Purging through vomiting can significantly damage teeth, as the acids in vomit erode tooth enamel. This can result in tooth decay, gum disease, and damage to the salivary glands over time. (5)

Eventually, teeth can fall out. If this happens, that damage is irreversible, and implants or other replacements are needed. 

If bulimia is treated and vomiting stops before this point, the effects of tooth decay and gum disease can be mitigated. Fillings or other dental repairs may be needed. These repairs can get quite expensive.

Bulimia & Bone Health

People with bulimia often have nutritional deficiencies due to their lack of a balanced diet. 

Though they consume large amounts of foods during a binge episode, these foods are rarely nutritional choices. Binges often consist of high-sugar and refined foods that are low in nutritional value. 

The effects of laxatives, diuretics, and vomiting often interfere with nutrient absorption as well, thwarting the normal digestive process. 

Because of this, people with bulimia often have calcium deficiency, and this results in brittle, weak bones. These people are at higher risk for osteoporosis later in life. (6)

Mental illness

Risks of Prolonged Bulimia 

Your health risks are closely tied to how often you purge. Electrolyte imbalances cause the majority of the health issues we’ve discussed, and you can avoid them by allowing your digestion to move forward naturally. (7)

If you vomit for long periods of time, you run the risk of developing respiratory infections. Pneumonia can have serious consequences, including difficulty breathing, damage to the lungs, and even death. (8)

If you get treatment and stop purging, most of your health risks can be reversed. Your heart, digestive system, and kidneys can all heal and function normally with time. But you must stop purging now. 

Other health issues, such as osteoporosis, can be treated with medications as part of your healing process. You might need extra monitoring and medical advice throughout your life, but you can go on to be healthy and thrive. (9)

How to Reduce the Health Risks Associated With Bulimia

You can ease the damage done to your body from bulimia, but the key is to stop purging. While your body can heal from many of the effects of bulimia, it won’t be able to effectively repair itself if you continue the binge-and-purge cycle.

It’s not enough to simply want to stop bingeing and purging. Most people need professional help to do so. Bulimia treatment programs generally involve a combination of medical and therapeutic care. 

Hospitalization

If you’re dealing with severe nutritional deficiencies or mental health issues, an initial period of hospitalization may be recommended. You may need medications to help you stabilize, such as antidepressants, to balance moods and improve your overall outlook of life. (10)

Therapy

Therapy is a core component of every treatment program for eating disorders. In both individual and group therapy sessions, you’ll begin to identify triggers that prompt bingeing or purging. You’ll devise methods to manage these triggers so you don’t return to the damaging behavior.

Support

You’ll also build a support network that can help you feel strong in your new life in recovery. These are people to turn to and resources you can access when you’re feeling low or tempted to relapse.

If you’re not enrolled in treatment, it’s time to get started. With a comprehensive treatment program, you can address issues that are contributing to your bulimia and begin to build a new life in recovery.

Resources


  1. Eating Disorder Statistics. National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
  2. Bulimia Tied to Higher Risk of Heart Disease and Premature Death. (October 2019). Reuters.
  3. Eating Disorders and Gastrointestinal Diseases. (December 2019). Nutrients.
  4. “End-Stage” Kidney in Longstanding Bulimia Nervosa. (December 2005). The International Journal of Eating Disorders.
  5. Tooth Erosion and Eating Disorders: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. (November 2014). PLOS ONE.
  6. Long Term Health Risks Due to Impaired Nutrition in Women with a Past History of Bulimia Nervosa. (2005). UCLA.
  7. Eating Disorder Damages Are Extensive but Reversible. (May 2020). NIH Record.
  8. Health Consequences of Bulimia Nervosa. (February 2018). Biomedical Research and Clinical Practice.
  9. A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Association Between Eating Disorders and Bone Density. (June 2016). Osteoporosis International.
  10. Early Response to Antidepressant Treatment in Bulimia Nervosa. (June 2010). Psychological Medicine.

Last Update | 11 - 15 - 2022

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