Bulimia nervosa is a serious and sometimes life-threatening eating disorder affecting mainly young women. People with bulimia, known as bulimics, consume large amounts of food (binge) and then try to rid themselves of the food and calories (purge) by fasting, excessive exercise, vomiting, or using laxatives. The behavior often serves to reduce stress and relieve anxiety. Because bulimia results from an excessive concern with weight control and self-image, and is often accompanied by depression, it is also considered a psychiatric illness.
The cause of bulimia is unknown. Researchers believe that it may be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Bulimia tends to run in families. Research shows that certain brain chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, may function abnormally inacutely ill bulimia patients. Scientists also believe there may be a link between bulimia and other psychiatric problems, such as depression and OCD. Environmental influences include participation in work or sports that emphasize thinness, such as modeling, dancing, or gymnastics. Family pressures also may play a role. One study found that mothers who are extremely concerned about their daughters' physical attractiveness and weight may help to cause bulimia. In addition, girls with eating disorders tend to have fathers and brothers who criticize their weight.
According to the American Anorexia/Bulimia Association, Inc., warning signs of bulimia include, eating large amounts of food uncontrollably (bingeing), vomiting, abusing laxatives or diuretics, or engaging in fasting, dieting, or vigorous exercise (purging), preoccupation with body weight, using the bathroom frequently after meals, depression or mood swings, irregular menstrual periods, onset of dental problems, swollen cheeks or glands, heartburn or bloating.
Early treatment is important otherwise bulimia may become chronic, with serious health consequences. A comprehensive treatment planis called for in order to address the complex interaction of physical and psychological problems in bulimia. A combination of drug and behavioral therapies is commonly used. Behavioral approaches include individual psychotherapy, group therapy, and family therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, which teachespatients how to change abnormal thoughts and behavior, is also used. Nutrition counseling and self-help groups are often helpful. Antidepressants commonly used to treat bulimia include desipramine (Norpramin), imipramine (Tofranil), and fluoxetine (Prozac). These medications also may treat any co-existing depression. In addition to professional treatment, family support plays an important role in helping the bulimic person. Encouragement and caring can provide the support needed to convince the sick person to get help, stay with treatment, or try again after a failure. Family members can help locate resources, such as eating disorder clinics in local hospitals or treatment programs in colleges designed for students.
Light therapy—exposure to bright, artificial light—may be useful in reducing bulimic episodes, especially during the dark winter months. Some feel that massage may prove helpful, putting people in touch with the reality of their own bodies and correcting misconceptions of body image. Hypnotherapy may help resolve unconscious issues that contribute to bulimic behavior.
The aim of the study was to determine incidence and prevalence rates and long-term trends in incidence of anorexia nervosa by identifying all persons residing in the community of Rochester, Minn., during the 50-year period 1935 through 1984 who had the disorder. From a community-based epidemiologic resource, 13,559 medical records with diagnoses of amenorrhea, starvation, weight loss, anorexia nervosa, or other conditions were screened to identify true cases of anorexia nervosa determined by using standard diagnostic criteria. RESULTS: One hundred eighty-one residents (166 female and 15 male) fulfilled the diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa; these were the incidence cases. Due to a quadratic trend in the rates for girls 10-19 years old, the incidence rate among female residents fell from 16.6 per 100,000 person-years in the 1935-1939 periods to a low of 7.0 in 1950-1954 and increased to 26.3 in 1980-1984. The incidence rates for women 20 years old and older and for males remained constant. For females 15-24 years old, there was a linear increase. The overall age-adjusted incidence rate per 100,000 person-years was 14.6 for females and 1.8 for males. The prevalence rate per 100,000 populations was 269.9 for females and 22.5 for males. CONCLUSIONS: Anorexia nervosa is more common than previously recognized. Among girls 15-19 years old it is a very common chronic illness. Its incidence has increased among females 15-24 years old but not among older women or among males.