Bulimia can lead to several issues throughout the body. Some effects can last after the cycle of bingeing and purging ends.

Bulimia (bulimia nervosa) is a type of eating disorder where a person eats a large amount of food and then attempts to purge or correct the imbalance through fasting or extreme exercise. Though it can affect anyone, females have a fivefold higher risk of developing the condition. The lifetime prevalence rate is about 1%.

A person with an eating disorder, such as bulimia, may develop complications that affect several areas of their mental and physical health. In some cases, they can be long lasting and persist past the end of the last binge-purge cycle.

This article reviews some of the potential long-term health issues relating to bulimia and answers some frequently asked questions about the condition.

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Bulimia often occurs alongside other mental health conditions. This is known as comorbidity, where two conditions occur at the same time.

The National Institute of Mental Health notes that 94.5% of people living with bulimia also met the criteria for at least one other mental health condition. Additionally, the organization noted that the following percentages of people living with bulimia also met the criteria for other disorders. These included:

Therefore, someone with bulimia may need additional screening and treatment for different mental health conditions.

The Office of Women’s Health also points out that bulimia often occurs in people whose self-esteem links to their physical appearance. Psychotherapy is a common course of treatment for bulimia that may help address issues of self-esteem.

Help is available

Eating disorders can severely affect the quality of life of people living with these conditions and those close to them. Early intervention and treatment greatly improve the likelihood of recovery.

Anyone who suspects they or a loved one may have an eating disorder can contact the National Alliance for Eating Disorders, which offers a daytime helpline staffed by licensed therapists and an online search tool for treatment options.

For general mental health support at any time, people can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 24 hours a day at 1-800-662-4357 (or 1-800-487-4889 for TTY).

Many other resources are also available, including:

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Purging can cause issues with the circulatory or cardiovascular system.

When a person vomits, they reduce the amount of electrolytes in their body — these play an important role in regulating the heartbeat. The loss and imbalance of electrolytes can lead to an irregular heartbeat and heart failure.

In addition, reducing the calories the body consumes can lead to the breakdown of muscles and other tissues within the body, including the heart. This can lead to the person’s heart rate and blood pressure dropping, which increases the risk of heart failure.

Complications to the circulatory system can be life threatening.

Living with bulimia can also reduce the number of red and white blood cells in the blood. A lack of red blood cells can lead to anemia, which causes fatigue, shortness of breath, and general weakness.

Additionally, the loss of white blood cells can lead to the increased risk and severity of infections.

The digestive system includes the mouth, throat, stomach, intestines, and several other supporting glands and tissues.

Bulimia can lead to several issues throughout the digestive system, including:

  • the formation of ulcers in the mouth and throat
  • damage to the stomach from overeating
  • tooth decay from vomiting
  • damage to the intestines with laxative use
  • issues with bowel movements

In addition, it can lead to other issues, such as:

  • slowed digestion
  • esophagus (food pipe) or stomach rupture, which are life threatening conditions
  • the development of pancreatitis or swelling of the pancreas
  • intestinal infections, blockages, or perforations

Prolonged lack of nutrients can lead to kidney failure.

Over time, bulimia can lead to insulin resistance. Insulin helps process blood sugars into useful energy. This increases a person’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

The integumentary system refers to the outer layer of a person’s body and includes parts such as the skin, hair, nails, and other aspects.

Bulimia can cause issues with the hair and skin that can include:

  • the growth of fine, downy hair all over the body to conserve warmth
  • dry skin
  • brittle hair
  • hair loss

Living with bulimia can cause issues with the reproductive system.

A person creates sex hormones and other hormones using consumed fat and cholesterol. When a person does not get enough of these nutrients, the amount of testosterone and estrogen in their body reduces.

In people with menstrual cycles, this can lead to issues, including:

  • the inability to start menstruation
  • irregular cycles
  • stopping menstruation altogether

It may also lead to the ovaries not releasing an egg every month, making it more difficult to become pregnant.

Living with bulimia during pregnancy can also lead to issues with the pregnancy, which can include:

Once menstrual cycles return to a person’s typical stages, the individual may be able to become pregnant. However, it may take longer — an average of about 6 months to a year.

The loss of sexual hormones can also lead to accelerated bone loss and conditions such as osteoporosis. Reduced bone density relating to osteoporosis increases the risk of fractures and other health complications.

The following are some questions people frequently ask about bulimia.

Why does bulimia cause heart problems?

Bulimia can cause a loss of nutrients and electrolytes necessary for optimal heart health. When a person does not get enough nutrients, it can lead to a breakdown of muscles and a reduction in the heart’s ability to pump blood.

Electrolyte imbalance can cause the heartbeat to become irregular, which can lead to heart failure or heart attack.

What is the greatest health risk from vomiting due to bulimia nervosa?

Repeated vomiting can lead to a rupture in the esophagus, which can be life threatening. Other common issues relating to excessive vomiting include tooth decay and ulcers in the throat.

Bulimia can affect several areas of the body. These effects can be long lasting and lead to other conditions such as type 2 diabetes. It can also affect a person’s heart, reproductive health, and bone density.

A person with bulimia may also experience another mental health condition that requires treatment, such as anxiety.

If an individual is experiencing symptoms of bulimia, they need to contact a doctor or mental health professional.