What Happens to the Body After Recovering From Bulimia?

Before bulimia and after—you can probably split your life into these two parts, and chances are, you’d like the “after” part to begin as quickly as possible. Recovery from bulimia isn’t quick, and most people need months (or years) to complete the process. [1] But your hard work is worthwhile.

Person visiting a doctor's office

Close to 70% of people with bulimia are recovered within nine years. [2] For many, early wins in recovery help spur them to keep working. Often, those early wins involve physical complications. You’re less likely to return to harmful methods when you notice your body changing and healing. 

Some bulimia-related problems fade relatively quickly, while others stick with you a little longer. Bone loss is one issue that may stay with you for the rest of your life. Your medical team can help you mitigate the damage, but you must stop bingeing and purging to make recovery possible. 

Short-Term Side Effects of Bulimia

As soon as you stop bingeing and purging, your damaged tissues start to heal. Some bulimia-associated issues go away remarkably quickly, and when they do, you could feel even more motivated to stay in therapy.

Patient with a doctor

Sore Hands and Fingers 

Self-induced vomiting is hard on the sensitive skin of your hands and fingers. Your teeth hit the back of your hands, and stomach acids brush your fingertips. Each time you look down, you’re reminded of the pain. 

Skin repairs very quickly, especially when you’re not re-injuring it. As soon as you stop vomiting, your hands and fingers will start to heal.

Inflamed Esophagus

Two bulimia habits damage delicate tissues in your throat and chest:

  • Bingeing: Devouring a huge meal can stretch tissues in your esophagus. Tiny tears are very painful. 
  • Purging: Stomach acids can burn your esophagus, leading to heartburn.

Most people need up to eight weeks of healing. [3] Medications keep stomach acid levels low, and tissues can knit together as long as you’re not vomiting. 

Fertility Issues 

Women may experience irregular periods or none at all, especially if they are underweight. Men can face low sperm counts and a reduced sex drive. Regain the weight you’ve lost, and these problems may fade. 

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Almost 70% of people with bulimia have IBS symptoms. [4]

Veering between constipation, diarrhea, cramping, and pain can make your life miserable. 

Electrolyte imbalances, laxative abuse, and poor nutrition all play a role in IBS. A healthy diet and moderate exercise may help. Within a few weeks, you may feel much more comfortable. 

Kidney Problems 

Chronic vomiting can lead to low potassium levels. Your kidneys rely on potassium to do their work, and without it, they may begin to fail. You could also develop painful kidney stones.

A healthy diet makes these problems fade away quickly. Your doctor can also use hydration programs and vitamin supplements to ensure your kidneys have what they need to heal and work properly. 

Weight Gain

You consume thousands of calories during each binge episode, and you don’t remove all of them through purging. As a result, it’s common for people with bulimia to be somewhat or even morbidly obese. 

Treatment programs help you lose weight at a healthy rate. You’ll learn how to craft a diet that helps you feel full and satisfied and develop eating routines that support your recovery. You may lose a little weight in early recovery and then build on it throughout your time in therapy. 

Long-Term Side Effects of Bulimia

While some bulimia issues go away quickly through a healthy diet and weight changes, others can persist. Medical teams can address these long-term problems, but you may need more time to recover. 

Swollen Cheeks

Salivary gland swelling from vomiting persists for weeks. Sometimes, people need surgery to remove some of the damaged tissues. If your cheeks don’t shrink to the right size, you may have a “refractory case” requiring medication or surgery. 

It’s hard to look in the mirror and see such a visible reminder of your eating disorder. But your medical team can work with you to address the problem and allow you to look like yourself again. 

Worn or Missing Teeth

Dental enamel fades away when exposed to stomach acid. Unfortunately, that tissue doesn’t grow back. As a result, dental damage caused by bulimia will stick with you until a dentist helps cover the damage. 

Artificial teeth, veneers, and fillings can help restore your smile and reduce pain. But without a dentist’s help, this problem will persist. 

Heart Disease 

Researchers say women with bulimia have a high risk of cardiovascular disease and heart-related early death. [6] Electrolyte imbalances and vomiting pressures take their toll on your heart muscle, and the damage is often significant. 

Although we aren’t sure how persistent that heart disease can be, studies suggest that at least some women live with this issue for a long time. [6] Researchers must do more work to determine how quickly the heart can heal once someone commits to bulimia recovery.

Permanent Side Effects of Bulimia

Your body is a remarkable machine, capable of repairing and replacing cells daily. But some bulimia problems are so intense that your body can’t undo the damage. 

People who develop bulimia during adolescence face one significant risk—osteopenia. Eating erratically when your body needs nutrients to build healthy, strong bones results in bones that may not be dense or strong. This condition, known as osteopenia, can result in painful bone breaks. [7]

Medications, including hormone replacement therapy, can help some women to build healthy bones. But some women struggle with weak and thin bones throughout their lifespans, even after recovering from bulimia. 

What Does Recovery Involve?

Each person with bulimia has a unique path to healing. But most people need help on three fronts.

During the earliest stages of recovery, you may need around-the-clock care from medical professionals. They’ll use fluids and medications to ease the most severe bulimia side effects and monitor your heart, kidneys, and digestive tract for complications.

Some people with bulimia never need hospitalization. But most require at least some help from medical teams during the early stages of recovery.

Many people with bulimia benefit from prescriptions to ease chemical imbalances and allow them to think clearly and build a new life. Your doctor may find the right medication for you immediately, or it may take some trial and error to get the right match. 

Some people use medications for just a few months, while others need to stay on them for years. You and your doctor can find a program that’s right for you. 

What triggers you to binge? What could you do instead? You’ve had bulimia before, how could it be different now? These are some questions you’ll learn to answer in a treatment program. 

You could benefit from the following:

  • Individual counseling: You work with one doctor in private sessions that involve just the two of you.
  • Group counseling: You work in larger sessions with many people who are also in recovery from bulimia. 
  • Family therapy: Your closest family members come together to learn more about your eating disorder and how to support you.

Counseling takes time, and you can expect to spend a significant portion of almost every week on your recovery. But the lessons you learn here can last a lifetime.

When to Get Started 

Bulimia rarely goes away unassisted. If you’re struggling with bulimia, now is the time to talk with your doctor and pull together an action plan. You can stop some of these significant health problems from happening, and together, you can find a path forward. 

Resources


  1. Recovery and Relapse. (n.d.). National Eating Disorder Association. Retrieved August 10, 2022.
  2. Eddy KT, Tabri N, Thomas JJ, Murray HB, Keshaviah A, Hastings E, Edkins K, Krishna M, Herzog DB, Keel PK, Franko DL. (2017). Recovery From Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa at 22-Year Follow-Up. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 78(2):184-189. 
  3. Wick JY. (2014). Reflux Esophagitis: Sometimes Healing Takes Time. Pharmacy Times. Retrieved August 10, 2022.
  4. Jain A, Yilanli M. (2022). Bulimia Nervosa. StatPearls. 
  5. Mehler PS, Krantz MJ, Sachs KV. (2015). Treatments of Medical Complications of Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. Journal of Eating Disorders, 3(15).
  6. Ruth RM, Paradis G, Potter BJ, Low N, Healy-Profitos J, He S, Auger N. (2020). Association of Bulimia Nervosa with Long-Term Risk of Cardiovascular Disease and Mortality Among Women. JAMA Psychiatry, 77(1):44-51.
  7. Eating Disorders and Your Bones: Get the Facts. (2015). New York State Department of Health.

Last Update | 11 - 27 - 2022

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