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Back to Basics: Bulimia

by Ashley Kwok

In an interview with CNN, Sydney Fitzgibbons said, "I learned at a young age that even if you can control nothing else around you, you can control your own body."

Sydney suffered from Bulimia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by a cycle of binge eating and purging. 

The binge-purge cycle can be triggered by different things for different individuals. Generally, these triggers fall under two categories. First, binges can be a form of catharsis for the individual because food often becomes a coping mechanism for those feeling stressed and/or out of control in everyday life. In more scientific terms, extended periods of stress causes cortisol, a hormone, to be released. Cortisol increases appetite and hence, the urge to eat more (Harvard Health Publishing).

Secondly, diets can result in binge eating.  If you’ve ever been on a diet, you may have restricted yourself from sugary and fatty foods.  You exercise control every time you see a brownie... until you don’t. “Shoot, I’ve blown my diet,” and a binge episode begins. You lose control, maybe even zoning out, as you gorge those delectable, gooey brownies. Another reason for binge eating may be due to the fact that your body is not receiving enough nutrients, and the desire to binge eat is simply a way for your body to say: EAT.

Purging refers to compensatory behaviours in order to prevent weight gain. It includes, but is not limited to, acts such as self-induced vomiting, laxatives and/or diuretics, and over-exercising. These behaviours can have long term consequences.

For example, repeated self-induced vomiting may cause tooth decay, a ruptured oesophagus, heartburn, and/or acid reflux (Healthline). All these symptoms are a result of stomach acid repeatedly burning through the tissues of your digestive tract.  Consuming more acidic foods will worsen these symptoms.

On the other hand, laxatives stimulate your colon and rid water, minerals, and electrolytes (Eating Disorder Hope). Contrary to popular belief, laxatives only help you temporarily lose weight because the only thing you lose is ‘water weight’, resulting in dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. These symptoms may cause extreme fatigue and a weakened heart, while often leading to heart failure in addition to all the other physical strains that purging inflicts on the body.  

Bulimia is life-threatening.  However, the lack of significant weight fluctuation makes bulimia difficult to detect amongst loved ones and sufferers of bulimia to feel invalid when faced with comments about their own eating disorders. These comments may be similar to lines such as, “Wow, I never knew! You haven’t lost a lot of weight though!” or “But you eat so much!”.

Insensitive comments can push sufferers of bulimia to anorexia, binge eating disorder, orthorexia, or other forms of eating disorders.  These mental illnesses take a physical form.

If your loved one is suffering from bulimia, or if you suspect them to be a sufferer, you can spot a relapse through physical symptoms such as puffy cheeks, bruised knuckles (known as Russell’s sign), and frequent or longer trips to the bathroom.  

It is imperative to note that an eating disorder is not something you can ‘switch off’.  It can be a combination of neurological abnormalities, like low serotonin levels, environmental factors, and might stem from other mental illnesses such as depression and/or body dysmorphia.  Personality traits such as perfectionism and an urge to over-achieve and control can also increase the likelihood of developing an eating disorder.

Because eating disorders are so complex in form and cause, seeking professional help, and having a treatment plan that combines talking therapy and medication is highly recommended.

Recovery is a long journey, but it’s a worthwhile one.  Instead of mental torment, constant fatigue, and endless self-critique, there might be a day in which you wake up and you feel just a tiny bit better about yourself, your body, and your future. 


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