Like many other eating disorders, bulimia nervosa is a serious disorder that can cause extreme harm or even death.
In this post we will explore both the short-term side effects of bulimia and the long-term side effects of bulimia. If you’re looking for more information about bulimia nervosa treatment, read our post here.
What is Bulimia Nervosa?
Before we get into the side effects of bulimia, let’s define what bulimia nervosa is. A person struggling with bulimia will often eat large amounts of food, called a binge, and then try to compensate for these calories by purging (self-induced vomiting), fasting, excessive exercise, or by taking laxatives or diuretics. This constant cycle of overeating and then compensating for the calories can cause harm to all parts of your body, and is often linked to mental health disorders like anxiety and depression.
Contrary to common thought, people suffering from bulimia are usually normal weight or even a bit above normal weight according to NAMI. There is a subtype of anorexia nervosa, called purging subtype where the individual restricts their intake routinely and then purges after eating. These individuals tend to be underweight and do not binge. They generally purge a small or relatively normal sized meal which is different than bulimia nervosa.
Eating disorders are often misunderstood as an obsessive desire to be thin or to be more attractive to others. While it can certainly start this way, eating disorders have little to do with food or weight. Instead, eating disorders like bulimia happen as a way of coping with painful or difficult feelings or experiences difficult to put into words. Bulimia is a “red flag” that there are wounds much deeper that need to be addressed.
If you suspect you or a loved one are experiencing bulimia, continue reading below some side effects one with bulimia often experiences. There are some physical warning signs that can help you get bulimia treatment.
Short-Term Effects of Bulimia
If you or a loved one is suffering from bulimia, there are some tell-tale signs you should notice in the short-term:
- Russell’s sign – This side effect is calluses on the knuckles and hands caused by a sufferer when they induce vomiting. While purging, their hand or knuckles scrape against their teeth. This won’t be seen for bulimia sufferers who use laxatives or over-exercise, or by some who purge
- Face Swelling – another sign of purging is the swelling of the face. This happens as the body reacts to self-induced vomiting and dehydration. This can cause additional stress on a sufferer.
- Tooth decay – Tooth decay is another sign of purging. If you or a loved one start suffering from out of the ordinary tooth and gum issues, this is yet another warning sign to seek treatment as soon as possible.
- Sore throat or cough – Sufferers of purging often have a sore throat, raspy voice, or a cough that doesn’t go away.
- Dehydration – Dehydration is a common sign of bulimia sufferers who purge. This can lead to a multitude of negative side effects we will outline further below.
- Broken blood vessels in the eyes from purging
Physical Effects of Bulimia
In this section we will review physical effects that bulimia causes.
Face and Mouth
Self-induced vomiting, or purging, can cause physically noticeable effects around your face and mouth. Some of these effects include:
- Puffy cheeks – A sufferer of bulimia may show signs of puffy cheeks from swollen salivary glands
- Red eyes – In some cases, a sufferer may suffer from red eyes from blood vessels bursting while vomiting
- Tooth decay – Bulimia sufferers who purge can experience tooth decay, where the acids break down gums and tooth enamel over a period of time. This can causes cavities and other dental problems
- Vocal cord damage – Purging can cause a bulimia sufferer to damage their vocal cords, causing them to speak with a raspy voice. They can also irritate their throat causing a regular cough
Bulimia sufferers who purge cause damage to their digestive system. Some bulimia side effects in the digestive system include:
- Acid reflux
- Stomach pain
- Weaker sphincter control, allowing acid build up in the esophagus
- Bloating, diarrhea, and constipation
- Hemorrhoids from injured blood vessels
Ingesting foods and then forcing the body to bring it back up creates great strain on your digestive system. It is not unsual for people with active bulimia to present with complex GI problems that require care from a specialist. In many cases, when the eating has returned to a more normal state, the symptoms can abate quite dramatically. Pursuit of GI treatments with a doctor who is unaware of the eating disorder or who does not appreciate the medical consequences of the eating disorder can delay someone’s recovery.
In addition, bulimia sufferers who use diuretics or laxatives to purge may have other digestive issues. While abusing these substances, it could become difficult or impossible for a sufferer to have a normal bowel movement without continued use.
For sufferers of bulimia who purge, dehydration is a common side effect. This dehydration can lead to weak muscles and fatigue, and throw your electrolytes out of normal balance which can put a heavy strain on your heart. Further, this heavy strain can cause an irregular heartbeat known as arrhythmia. In severe cases of bulimia, heart failure can happen.
In addition to the above circulatory system side effects, bulimia can cause:
- Low blood pressure
- Weak pulse
Sufferings of bulimia who are women can experience reproductive system side effects including:
- Loss of sex drive
- Interference with menstrual cycle (or stop completely)
Furthermore, pregnant women continue to binge and purge may face additional side effects for themselves and their babies including:
- Postpartum depression
- Low weight babies
- Higher risk of cesarean delivery
- Premature birth
- High blood pressure
- Difficulties breastfeeding
Bulimia can also affect the integumentary system, which makes up your hair, skin, and nails. Here are some bulimia side effects that occur within the integumentary system:
- Dry and/or frizzy hair
- Hair loss
- Dry or scaly skin
- Brittle nails
Mental and Emotional Effects of Bulimia
In addition to physical side effects bulimia causes, there are often severe mental and emotional side effects. In this section, I will outline mental and emotional effects of bulimia. These include:
- Major mood swings
- Generalized anxiety
- Feelings of isolation
- Low self-esteem
- OCD behaviors
Long Term Effects of Bulimia
In this section, I will identify long term effects of bulimia. A person with untreated bulimia may experience serious health side effects such as:
- Brittle bones
- Reproductive difficulties
- Chronic fatigue
- Heart failure
- Increased risk of suicide
- Permanent damage to your digestive tract
- Esophageal cancer
- Chronic GERD
- Major dental issues, including bone loss in the jaw which can result in tooth loss
Bulimia is a very serious mental disorder. While studies vary, one study published in the NCBI concludes that the bulimia death rate is at 3.9%.
Seeking Treatment for Bulimia Nervosa in Miami, Florida
If you or a loved one suffer from bulimia, it may seem like a hopeless journey full of pain and disappointments. But I’m here to help, I’ve dedicated my life to helping individuals overcome deadly eating disorders like bulimia – a full recovery is within your grasp. There is hope!
I’m Dr. Amy Boyers, a Clinical Psychologist in Miami who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders (all types) and other serious, long-term mental health conditions, including addictions, bipolar disorder treatment, and OCD. I offer personalized and sophisticated eating disorder treatment services, individual and family psychotherapy, family member support and education, in-home meal support, coordination of a treatment service, and much more.