The complications of living with bulimia nervosa
Those living with bulimia nervosa may experience a variety of edical complications associated with the disorder. Purging behaviors, which may include self-induced vomiting and laxative or diuretic misuse, can result in the following complications:10,18
- Heart arrhythmias
- Low blood pressure
- Gastrointestinal (GI) emergencies
Seeking help from a healthcare team as soon as possible can improve short- and long-term outcomes for recovery. However, even if you have been struggling with bulimia nervosa for a long time without help, recovery is still possible, and getting support can make a big difference.
What are the long-term effects of bulimia nervosa?
The long-term effects of bulimia nervosa can include serious medical consequences, especially if the eating disorder is left untreated.1 In the long term it can lead to physical, mental, and emotional effects.
Difficulties with conceiving
Infertility is one of the potential long-term effects of bulimia nervosa.1 However, the good news is that once your nutritional status improves with treatment and your vitamin and mineral levels have been restored, your chances of conception and overall fertility may improve as well.1
Diabetes and metabolic disturbances
The disordered eating behaviors of bulimia nervosa, including restricting, purging, and excessive exercise, can lead to a suppressed metabolic rate.18
Restoring metabolic rate after having an eating disorder, like bulimia nervosa, is possible and involves steadily increasing the patient’s caloric intake to gradually speed up their metabolism. As a person’s daily food intake steadily increases, so will their metabolism.2 Eating a balanced diet while in recovery from BN can also help address any remaining nutritional deficiencies.
Low bone density increases the potential for broken bones
Bone density is measured to determine how strong your bones are, as having a low bone density can mean your bones are more likely to be fractured or broken, placing you at a higher risk for serious injury.2
It’s natural as the body ages that bone density will decrease and bones will become more brittle. However, eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa have been linked to degrading old bone at a faster rate than normal.4 Malnutrition and stress have also been connected to low bone density.5
Some new methods may be able to help restore bone density in people recovering from eating disorders. A multidisciplinary team approach to treatment includes working with a nutritionist and movement therapist, who can develop a supplement program and address bone health.6
Recurring and regular episodes of self-induced vomiting can lead to inflammation of the esophagus. In long-term cases of bulimia nervosa, which is an eating disorder characterized by frequent purging, scarring, or even rupturing of the esophagus can occur, which is life-threatening.7
Acid reflux and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which is a more severe, chronic form of acid reflux, are also common in those living with bulimia nervosa.7 These issues can be alleviated through healthcare interventions, which may include medication and surgery. A medical team and a GI specialist can help create a healthcare plan to reduce further damage and discomfort from these stomach acid issues.
Irregular sleep patterns are a regular complaint of those suffering from bulimia nervosa, with difficulty falling asleep, increased day sleep, and reduced REM sleep being common sleep disturbances.8,9
A lack of sleep can contribute to food cravings, potentially acting as a trigger for binging episodes. Furthermore, the quick surge of energy that follows a binge can interfere with a person’s regular sleep patterns, which can result in the continuation of the poor sleep and binge cycle.8 Normal circadian rhythms are more likely to be disturbed when binge episodes occur at night.8
Heart damage and high cholesterol
There may be residual heart damage and increased cholesterol in people who have experienced bulimia nervosa.18 A comprehensive treatment plan will include food, movement, stress reduction, and possibly medication and supplement recommendations to restore heart health.
Upper and lower GI issues are common in those living with bulimia nervosa. Digestive issues caused by bulimia include acid reflux, GERD, stomach pain, nausea, rectal prolapse, and Mallory-Weiss tears.10
Getting treatment for BN will help determine your need for probiotics and/or supplements for your current GI symptoms. Your treatment team can create a complete plan of healing for the gut, which may involve addressing regular bowel movements, hemorrhoids, and other possible conditions.
Treating the long-term effects of bulimia after recovery
The good news is that many of the long-term effects of bulimia nervosa are treatable.
A comprehensive treatment program for bulimia nervosa often includes working with a dietitian and medical team who develop an appropriate and personalized eating plan, monitor labs for nutrient deficiencies, and recommend supplements and/or diabetes mitigation as needed.
Once you are admitted to an eating disorder treatment program, your multidisciplinary treatment team will conduct a diagnostic evaluation to determine which interventions and treatments will be the most effective in helping to address all of the physical and mental health side effects of BN.
For individuals living with any of the long-term effects of bulimia, in addition to renourishing your body and altering eating disorder behaviors, there are many treatments available that can be effective and can improve the quality of your life.
The types of psychotherapies that have been found to be effective in the treatment of bulimia nervosa include:11-16
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Cognitive remediation therapy (CRT)
- Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
- Emotionally focused therapy (EFT)
- Exposure therapy
- Internal family systems (IFS)
- Interpersonal therapy (IPT)
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)