After consuming a meal, a person with bulimia quickly tries to purge the food. But sometimes quick fixes can leave long-term damage. What seems like a fast, harmless remedy at the time can harm internal systems over time. Bulimia is a mental illness that can also harm the body, including the teeth, throat, stomach and colon.
Individuals with bulimia frequently use laxatives or diuretics, or make themselves vomit to purge their body of food. Over time, this mental illness can cause multiple physical problems that may last a lifetime. Treatment and management of bulimia is essential to help these individuals protect their body from future harm.
Damage to the Colon
Bulimia can have a profound effect on the colon. Repeatedly using laxatives and diuretics disrupts the normal function of the bowels and makes it difficult for the intestines to regain normal functioning long after a person stops using that purging method. Some people develop a dangerous dependency on the laxatives, and stopping their use puts the body at risk of dysfunction and infection that may require colon surgery.
Trying to self-manage the body systems can have dangerous consequences. Each internal system works as it has for generations, sending the same complex signals to other body systems to keep the body functioning properly. When individuals take control of how and when these internal systems work, by using laxatives and diuretics, the body tries to adjust. But if individuals keep interfering with their insides, the body eventually gives up and shuts down its internal workers. Misusing diuretics can upset the electrolytes in the body or cause edema, a building up of fluids in the body.
Damage to the Mouth and Throat
While the abuse of laxatives and diuretics can damage the colon, repeated vomiting can damage the mouth and throat. The teeth, salivary glands and esophagus can all be harmed by actions of someone with bulimia:
- Tooth decay: Stomach acid that repeatedly washes over the teeth can eventually wear away protective tooth enamel. Without this protective layer, teeth are more vulnerable to cavities and are more sensitive to the stinging pain of things that are too hot or too cold.
- Swollen salivary glands: Frequent vomiting can swell and bruise the salivary glands.
- Damaged esophagus: Frequent vomiting can rupture the esophagus, cause strictures and produce ulcers.
Esophageal Cancer and Bulimia
Adenocarcinoma of the esophagus, or esophageal cancer, is relatively rare as a complication of bulimia nervosa, but it has been reported in a few cases. At least one research study has shown that there is an association between esophageal cancer and acidic damage on the esophagus resulting from chronic acid reflux. Bulimics can develop a condition called Barrett’s Esophagus,
a disorder where the tissue of the esophagus is damaged by stomach acid. Because frequent vomiting can produce symptoms similar to chronic acid reflux, bulimia can lead to Barrett’s Esophagus, which is a risk factor for abnormal cell growth and cancerous tumors on and around the esophagus. It is estimated that only 10% of people diagnosed with Barrett’s will develop cancer, but roughly 90% of esophageal cancer cases started as untreated Barrett’s.
It should be noted that esophageal cancer may also be associated with chronic nutritional deficiency and also with heavy smoking and drinking. Bulimia and other eating disorders are associated with nutritional deficiency, as well as with co-occurring smoking and alcohol use disorders. In fact, nearly one in 10 bulimia patients has an alcohol or substance use disorder.
This makes it difficult to determine if bulimia nervosa alone can cause esophageal cancer, or if the disorder is just one among several contributing factors. The important thing is to seek help if you suffer from bulimia or another eating disorder, and tell your doctor if you have symptoms of acid reflux or have any difficulty swallowing.
Getting Help Before the Damage Is Done
The key to avoiding the long-term effects of bulimia is helping an individual find treatment as soon as possible. The earlier the habitual purging practices cease, the less damage they do to the internal systems of the body. There is treatment for mental illness, and treating the mind will help treat the entire body.