The Physical Side Effects of Bulimia

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by cycles of binging followed by compensatory behaviors. A compensatory behavior is any behavior that serves to “make up for” the binge, such as fasting, compulsive exercise, laxative abuse, or self-induced vomiting. [1]

There is a common misconception that if someone has an eating disorder, you will be able to tell just by looking at them. This isn’t true, as many people with bulimia may be at an average weight or in a bigger body.

Being aware of the physical side effects of bulimia can help you figure spot the signs that you or a loved one may be suffering from the physical side effects of bulimia.

Physical Side Effects of Bulimia

In the beginning phases of an eating disorder, you may not have very many symptoms. If you do, they may be more mild. Some short-term physical side effects include: [2,3]

  • Severe dehydration
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Anemia
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Stomach pain
  • Bloating
  • Blood sugar fluctuations
  • Bacterial infections
  • Feeling full after eating only small amounts
  • Constipation
  • Irregular heart rhythm
  • Amenorrhea, aka absence of menstruation
  • Cavities
  • Swollen salivary glands in the jaw or neck
  • Hair loss
  • Dry skin
  • Yellow-orange skin
  • Lanugo
  • Intestinal issues
  • Acid reflux
  • Sleep problems
  • Dizziness
  • Pancreatitis

However, over time symptoms can become more severe as the eating disorder worsens. Bulimia can impact every bodily system. Since the majority of people with bulimia binge and purge, the majority of research focuses on the impact of prolonged self-induced vomiting.

Some people with bulimia also engage in other disordered eating behaviors, such as compulsive exercise, laxative abuse, or food restriction. These behaviors can create their own set of symptoms. Possible long-term side effects of bulimia include: [2,3]

  • Hormonal imbalances, leading to amenorrhea (loss of menstrual period)
  • Fertility issues
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Kidney damage
  • Increased risk of kidney stones and kidney failure
  • Damaged nerve endings in the bowl
  • Weakness in the esophageal sphincter
  • Tearing of the esophagus
  • Chronic acid reflux
  • Esophagitis, an inflammation of the esophagus that can lead to scarring
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Ruptured esophagus or stomach due to binging and purging
  • Ulcers in the lining of the intestines
  • Constipation
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Bowel obstruction and perforation
  • Partial colon resection
  • Low blood pressure
  • Heart palpitations
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Weakened heart muscles
  • Cardiac arest
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Low bone density
  • Brittle bones
  • Osteopenia
  • Osteoporosis
  • Enamel erosion
  • Damage to the salivary glands
  • Tooth sensitivity and decay
  • Gum disease
  • Tooth loss

Treatment and Recovery from Bulimia Nervosa

It’s important to get treatment for bulimia. The physical side effects alone require medical intervention [1,3]. However, mental healthcare is also warranted when someone seeks treatment for the physical side effects. Mental healthcare is necessary to try and prevent relapse of behaviors and physical symptoms.

The severity of someone’s eating disorder will determine how much care they need to recover. If someone has severe or life-threatening physical side effects, they may be hospitalized or put into residential treatment.

These levels of care provide 24/7 support.

How is Bulimia Treated?

Treatment for any eating disorder typically involves treatment from multiple professionals at a time. This is known as a treatment team. Your treatment team will most likely be made up of a doctor, psychiatrist, mental health therapist, and registered dietitian. These professionals can work with you at any level of care, such as in a hospital or outpatient.

Each provider plays a different role in the recovery process. Their roles can be summed up as:

  • Doctor: A doctor will oversee the medical aspect of recovery, such as monitoring and treating the physical side effects of bulimia
  • Psychiatrist: A psychiatrist treats mental health conditions with medication. Many people with bulimia also experience other mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression. Some people may use an eating disorder to cope with another condition, so treating other mental health issues can help with the recovery process.
  • Mental health therapist- A therapist will treat and support with the emotional aspects of an eating disorder. Therapy may include individual therapy along with family or couple’s counseling.
  • Registered dietitian (RD)- An RD will work with you to figure out your unique nutritional needs and how to meet them. An RD can also provide support with fear foods, disordered eating behaviors, etc.

If you or a loved one are experiencing the physical side effects of bulimia, reach out for support today. Help is available.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on November 15th, 2022
Published on

Author: Samantha Bothwell, LMFT