If your primary care provider suspects you have bulimia, he or she will typically:
- Talk to you about your eating habits, weight-loss methods and physical symptoms
- Do a physical exam
- Request blood and urine tests
- Request a test that can identify problems with your heart (electrocardiogram)
- Perform a psychological evaluation, including a discussion of your attitude toward your body and weight
- Use the criteria for bulimia listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association
Your primary care provider may also request additional tests to help pinpoint a diagnosis, rule out medical causes for weight changes and check for any related complications.
When you have bulimia, you may need several types of treatment, although combining psychotherapy with antidepressants may be the most effective for overcoming the disorder.
Treatment generally involves a team approach that includes you, your family, your primary care provider, a mental health professional and a dietitian experienced in treating eating disorders. You may have a case manager to coordinate your care.
Here's a look at bulimia treatment options and considerations.
Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy or psychological counseling, involves discussing your bulimia and related issues with a mental health professional. Evidence indicates that these types of psychotherapy help improve symptoms of bulimia:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy to help you normalize your eating patterns and identify unhealthy, negative beliefs and behaviors and replace them with healthy, positive ones
- Family-based treatment to help parents intervene to stop their teenager's unhealthy eating behaviors, to help the teen regain control over his or her eating, and to help the family deal with problems that bulimia can have on the teen's development and the family
- Interpersonal psychotherapy, which addresses difficulties in your close relationships, helping to improve your communication and problem-solving skills
Ask your mental health professional which psychotherapy he or she will use and what evidence exists that shows it's beneficial in treating bulimia.
Antidepressants may help reduce the symptoms of bulimia when used along with psychotherapy. The only antidepressant specifically approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat bulimia is fluoxetine (Prozac), a type of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), which may help even if you're not depressed.
Dietitians can design an eating plan to help you achieve healthy eating habits to avoid hunger and cravings and to provide good nutrition. Eating regularly and not restricting your food intake is important in overcoming bulimia.
Bulimia can usually be treated outside of the hospital. But if symptoms are severe, with serious health complications, you may need treatment in a hospital. Some eating disorder programs may offer day treatment rather than inpatient hospitalization.
Treatment challenges in bulimia
Although most people with bulimia do recover, some find that symptoms don't go away entirely. Periods of bingeing and purging may come and go through the years, depending on your life circumstances, such as recurrence during times of high stress.
If you find yourself back in the binge-purge cycle, follow-up sessions with your primary care provider, dietitian and/or mental health professional may help you weather the crisis before your eating disorder spirals out of control again. Learning positive ways to cope, creating healthy relationships and managing stress can help prevent a relapse.
If you've had an eating disorder in the past and you notice your symptoms returning, seek help from your medical team immediately.
Lifestyle and home remedies
In addition to professional treatment, follow these self-care tips:
- Stick to your treatment plan. Don't skip therapy sessions and try not to stray from meal plans, even if they make you uncomfortable.
- Learn about bulimia. Education about your condition can empower you and motivate you to stick to your treatment plan.
- Get the right nutrition. If you aren't eating well or you're frequently purging, it's likely your body isn't getting all of the nutrients it needs. Talk to your primary care provider or dietitian about appropriate vitamin and mineral supplements. However, getting most of your vitamins and minerals from food is typically recommended.
- Stay in touch. Don't isolate yourself from caring family members and friends who want to see you get healthy. Understand that they have your best interests at heart and that nurturing, caring relationships are healthy for you.
- Be kind to yourself. Resist urges to weigh yourself or check yourself in the mirror frequently. These may do nothing but fuel your drive to maintain unhealthy habits.
- Be cautious with exercise. Talk to your primary care provider about what kind of physical activity, if any, is appropriate for you, especially if you exercise excessively to burn off post-binge calories.
Dietary supplements and herbal products designed to suppress the appetite or aid in weight loss may be abused by people with eating disorders. Weight-loss supplements or herbs can have serious side effects and dangerously interact with other medications.
Weight-loss and other dietary supplements don't need approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to go on the market. And natural doesn't always mean safe. If you choose to use dietary supplements or herbs, discuss the potential risks with your primary care provider.
Coping and support
You may find it difficult to cope with bulimia when you're hit with mixed messages by the media, culture, coaches, family, and maybe your own friends or peers. So how do you cope with a disease that can be deadly when you're also getting messages that being thin is a sign of success?
- Remind yourself what a healthy weight is for your body.
- Resist the urge to diet or skip meals, which can trigger binge eating.
- Don't visit websites that advocate or glorify eating disorders.
- Identify troublesome situations that trigger thoughts or behaviors that may contribute to your bulimia, and develop a plan to deal with them.
- Have a plan in place to cope with the emotional distress of setbacks.
- Look for positive role models who can help boost your self-esteem.
- Find pleasurable activities and hobbies that can help distract you from thoughts about bingeing and purging.
- Build up your self-esteem by forgiving yourself, focusing on the positive, and giving yourself credit and encouragement.
If you have bulimia, you and your family may find support groups helpful for encouragement, hope and advice on coping. Group members can truly understand what you're going through because they've been there. Ask your doctor if he or she knows of a group in your area.
Coping advice for parents
If you're the parent of someone with bulimia, you may blame yourself for your child's eating disorder. But eating disorders have many causes, and parenting style is not considered a cause. It's best to focus on how you can help your child now.
Here are some suggestions:
- Ask your child what you can do to help. For example, ask if your teenager would like you to plan family activities after meals to reduce the temptation to purge.
- Listen. Allow your child to express feelings.
- Schedule regular family mealtimes. Eating at routine times is important to help reduce binge eating.
- Let your teenager know any concerns you have. But do this without placing blame.
Remember that eating disorders affect the whole family, and you need to take care of yourself, too. If you feel that you aren't coping well with your teen's bulimia, you might benefit from professional counseling. Or ask your child's primary care provider about support groups for parents of children with eating disorders.
Preparing for your appointment
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your health care team. Ask a family member or friend to go with you, if possible, to help you remember key points and give a fuller picture of the situation.
What you can do
Before your appointment, make a list of:
- Your symptoms, even those that may seem unrelated to the reason for your appointment
- Key personal information, including any major stresses or recent life changes
- All medications, vitamins, herbal products, over-the-counter medications or other supplements you're taking, and their dosages
- Questions to ask your doctor, so you can make the most of your time together
Some questions to ask your primary care provider or mental health professional include:
- What kinds of tests do I need? Do these tests require any special preparation?
- What treatments are available, and which do you recommend?
- Is there a generic alternative to the medicine you're prescribing for me?
- How will treatment affect my weight?
- Are there any brochures or other printed material I can have? What websites do you recommend?
Don't hesitate to ask other questions during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Your primary care provider or mental health professional will likely ask you a number of questions. He or she may ask:
- How long have you been worried about your weight?
- Do you think about food often?
- Do you ever eat in secret?
- Have you ever vomited because you were uncomfortably full?
- Have you ever taken medications for weight loss?
- Do you exercise? If so, how often?
- Have you found any other ways to lose weight?
- Are you having any physical symptoms?
- Have any of your family members ever had symptoms of an eating disorder, or have any been diagnosed with an eating disorder?
Your primary care provider or mental health professional will ask additional questions based on your responses, symptoms and needs. Preparing and anticipating questions will help you make the most of your appointment time.