Bulimia Nervosa and How it’s Treated

Eating disorders are classified as a mental illness and affect millions of people in the U.S. There are five clinically defined eating disorders, including bulimia nervosa.

Recovery from bulimia is possible, but as with any mental illness, a good support system and treatment protocol are required.

Bulimia nervosa defined

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What is Bulimia Nervosa? Like most eating disorders, bulimia involves the individual limiting their food intake to prevent weight gain. People with bulimia eat large amounts of food in a short period of time, followed by a purging of the food in efforts to undo their food intake.

When a patient binges, they experience a loss of control and a compulsion to eat as much as they can in a short period of time. After the binge, they feel remorse, guilt and shame and then feel compelled to rectify their loss of control, by purging. They get into a cycle of binge-purge-binge-purge which becomes a habit of disordered eating and requires medical intervention.


Eating disorders are caused by many factors. Researchers have linked genetics to an increased risk of developing bulimia. Living in a household with a parent who constantly diets is another contributing factor. Many patients with an eating disorder experienced bullying or another form of trauma in their life which contributed to their disordered relationship with food.

Pressures from society to maintain a thin body, low self-esteem and feelings associated with defining self-worth by the way an individual looks and the size of their body frame also increases the risk of eating disorders. Mood disorders and anxiety and depression are also related to eating disorders like bulimia.

Medical care

Like other eating disorders, there are many treatment options for Bulimia. It’s crucial that a multi-disciplinary treatment team is assembled who will work together to provide personalized care for the patient. The goals of treatment include stabilizing the patient, identifying the emotional issues related to their disordered eating, teaching the patient how to manage their compulsive behaviors and providing them with healthy coping skills.

The care team includes doctors well versed in treating eating disorders. Early intervention is crucial so that a physician can identify any major medical concerns and treat life-threatening symptoms such as electrolyte imbalances and damage to organs such as the heart or esophagus. Depending on the severity of the case, a patient may be hospitalized for treatment.

Psychotherapy and medication

Mental health professionals are tasked with helping the patient acknowledge their damaging behavior and focus on breaking the habit of binging and purging that has developed. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is an effective approach therapists use to help the patient identify triggers and develop a plan to combat them. For patients with bulimia, this includes an appropriate response to hunger cues. Psychotherapy often includes individual, family and/or group therapy sessions, which help increase the patient’s support network and provide accountability.

Many drugs have been used along with therapy to successfully treat bulimia. Antidepressants and mood stabilizers such as Prozac and Topamax not only treat the eating disorder but also treat correlating anxiety and depression and increase the effectiveness of this treatment protocol.

Nutrition counseling and support

A nutritionist is a vital component to the treatment of a patient with bulimia, especially in helping the patient regain a healthy weight in a safe manner and develop a healthy relationship with food. Finally, they help the patient take ownership of their recovery by developing a nutrition and meal plan with the patient.

Having an effective support network is essential in recovery and reduces the risk of relapse for a patient with bulimia. Along with the medical team, family and friends can provide one of the first lines of support. There are also many support groups throughout the U.S. that can provide encouragement and help with the road to recovery.


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