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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) through fasting, excessive exercise, vomiting, or use of laxatives. Bulimics often feel that the behavior 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.
Bulimia nervosa is a serious health problem for more than two million adolescent girls and young women in the United States. The bingeing and purging activity associated with this disorder can cause severe damage, even death, although the risk of death is not as high as for anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder that leads to excessive weight loss.
Binge eating may in rare instances cause the stomach to rupture. In the case of purging, heart failure can result due to loss of vital minerals such as potassium. Vomiting causes other serious problems, including acid-related scarring of the fingers (if used to induce vomiting) and damage to tooth enamel. In addition, the tube that brings food from the mouth to the stomach (the esophagus) often becomes inflamed and salivary glands can become swollen. Irregular menstrual periods can also result, and interest in sex may diminish.
Most bulimics find it difficult to stop their behavior without professional help. Many typically recognize that the behavior is not normal, but feel out of control. Some bulimics struggle with other compulsive, risky behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse. Many also suffer from other psychiatric illnesses, including clinical depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Most bulimics are females in their teens or early 20s. Males account for only 5-10% of all cases. People of all races develop the disorder, but most of those diagnosed are white.
Bulimic behavior is often carried out in secrecy, accompanied by feelings of guilt or shame. Outwardly, many people with bulimia appear healthy and successful, while inside they have feelings of helplessness and low self-esteem.
Author Info: Mai Tran, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, 2005
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