What is Bulimia?
Adolescence is a transitionary period usually between the ages of 13 and 19. It is during this in-between period that a young person begins experiencing both physical and psychological changes as they transition from childhood to adulthood. In some children (especially girls), these changes may occur in their pre-teen years as early as from the ages of 9 to 12. For girls, their bodies begin storing up significant amounts of fat and they begin developing curves, breast and hips. They begin to shed their childish physiques and begin to look more like women. This can be an exciting period for some girls and such girls embrace the changes. However, some girls resent the physical changes that come with adolescence. They may begin questioning their appearances or feel uncomfortable in their own bodies; wishing to remain slim with girlish bodies. This is especially common in cases where girls mature early in their preteen years. Girls who resent adolescence may express their feelings through eating. One may begin overeating and binging on food and experiencing feelings of guilt and shame which she then tries to compensate for by purging through forced vomiting and abuse of laxatives or compulsive exercises, abnormal fasting and even starvation. This is an eating disorder known as Bulimia. Although a majority of people suffering from Bulimia Nervosa are adolescent girls and young women (from the ages 15 to early 20s), we cannot say that the disorder is unique to the female gender or that it is specifically caused by changes occurring during puberty. Bulimia also affects adolescent boys and men.
Causes of Bulimia
Bulimia nervosa may be caused by a combination of factors that could be genetic, socio-cultural or psychological. Some people diagnosed with Bulimia have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and are perfectionists. Others may have underlying self-esteem issues and have a distorted perception about their weights mirroring their self-esteem. As a result, they become unhappy and disappointed when they gain weight.
In some cases, Bulimic patients have self-identity issues and may have difficulties fitting or adapting to the world. A man suffering from Bulimia Nervosa may be unhappy and depressed and they may try to cope by eating compulsively and then purging.
Forced vomiting and using laxatives and diuretics may express one’s desire to get rid of things they hate or dislike about themselves.
Bulimia Nervosa can be hereditary. Some bulimic patients come from families with history of it or other eating disorders. Although people who have relatives who have Bulimia have an increased risk of developing it, this may also be due to family practices rather than their genetic make-up.
Research studies conducted on Bulimic patients show that most people who have bulimia nervosa have levels of serotonin; a compound in the cerebrum. The altered levels of serotonin in such individuals could contribute to increased anxiety and/ or depression.
Socio Cultural Pressure
Cultural and societal pressures may significantly contribute to one’s chances of developing depression and Bulimia nervosa. Girls who mature earlier before their friends and classmates may be more at risk of developing bulimia because they may be bullied for looking different than their friends.
This coupled with the image projected by films, on magazines and on the television depicting slim girls as beautiful could also be significantly increase one’s risk of developing bulimia or depression or both.
For men, family and societal pressures may also increase one’s chances of being bulimic. Men with obsessive compulsive disorder have an increased risk.
While there is no one known cause of Bulimia and that this condition does affect both men and women, it is also a fact that the majority (90 percent) of people diagnosed with bulimia are women.
Alarming Health Risk of Bulimia
The chances of gastro-intestinal rapture are increased for people with Bulimia when they binge on food. If one eats a large amount of food at a go, the volume of the food eaten may be too great for the gastro-intestinal tract and may cause it to burst. Gastric rapture is life-threatening and may cause death.
Bulimia and depression are two sides of the same coin. It is very difficult to determine which condition is caused by the other. But the fact is most bulimic patients tend to be depressed and suicidal.
The human body requires the right balance of electrolytes in order for the muscles, nerves and organs to function effectively. Bulimic patients frequently experience serious effects resulting from electrolyte imbalance. This imbalance occurs from the frequent abuse of laxatives and diuretics and forced vomiting after binging on food.
Electrolyte imbalance can cause organ failure and sudden death.
In simple terms, ketoacidosis refers to the presence of excess amounts of acids (also known as ketones) in the circulatory system. Ketoacidosis occurs when the body uses stored fat to compensate for the lack of nourishment in order to function.
This condition is caused by starvation, binge eating and forced vomiting or use of laxatives, severe dehydration, alcohol abuse, hyperglycemia and diabetes. If not diagnosed and treated early, ketoacidosis can cause coma and sudden death.
It is indeed alarming to know that Bulimia can lead to someone developing cancer. Many bulimic patients develop serious adverse effects of consistent indigestion because the regular forced vomiting weakens or destroys the “no-return valve” which usually prevents food from coming back up after it is swallowed.
Once this valve is destroyed, bulimics begin experiencing serious consistent indigestion which leads to a condition known as Barrett’s Esophagus which sometimes prompts Esophagus cancer. This type of cancer is very serious and has a high mortality rate because it is often diagnosed when it is very advanced and treatment may not be very successful.
Treatment for Bulimia Nervosa
Bulimia Nervosa is a major mental illness that manifests itself as an eating disorder that has life threatening and even fatal consequences. However, bulimia can be treated successfully enabling the patient to live a fulfilled and happier life.
Treatment for Bulimia Nervosa involves psychological therapy to determine the underlying mental issues that the patient is suffering from and mental treatment to help the patient cope and to enable a patient develop new coping abilities. After the mental issues are addressed, a person suffering from bulimia will also need restorative medication to treat the symptoms or the diseases the patient developed because of the condition.
The person suffering from bulimia will also need to be put on a healthy balanced diet and given guidance, counselling and instructions on the importance of adopting appropriate eating patterns with regards to their condition.
As with other illnesses, early diagnosis and treatment vital in successfully treating bulimia. However, chronic cases of Bulimia nervosa have been successfully treated. The key is strictly following the medication and treatment prescribed and adopting the dietary changes recommended.
Moral support and understanding especially from family is very important for complete recovery of people with Bulimia.