What Causes Bulimia?

Bulimia is an addictive and devastating illness which controls the daily life of those living with the disease. Causes of bulimia have been linked most directly to emotional illness and psychological disorders. But, new evidence shows that biology, brain chemistry and even genetics may play a role in the development of the disease.

Bulimia Defined

Bulimia is an eating disorder which involves habitual purging of food by self-induced vomiting and/or abuse of laxatives and diuretics. Obsessive exercising, periods of fasting and constant dieting are other hallmarks of the illness. Like other addictive behavior, bulimia generally becomes more destructive and difficult to control over time.

Emotional Causes

At center stage for those living with bulimia is damage to self esteem. For most, feelings of worthlessness and negative self-image are likely to exist before bulimia begins. Once the endless and exhausting cycle of binging and purging food takes hold, the emotional and physical health of those living with bulimia spirals downward.

While bulimia can develop at any age, for many the eating disorder has its roots in childhood and adolescence. Dysfunctional parenting or lack of support within families can interfere with the development of healthy self-esteem and identity. Learning to use food as a coping mechanism at a young age can contribute to development of bulimia later on in life. Overweight children, often rejected by friends and family members, can develop deep-seated feelings of shame, worthlessness and isolation.

Depression, anxiety or general emotional distress are underlying factors for many people with living with bulimia. Obsession with and control over food is often a substitute for healthier coping mechanisms which aren’t readily available to those with the illness. Overtime, the secretive and addictive nature of bulimia makes it a dangerous and life-threatening disease.

Emotional and environmental factors which can contribute to the development of bulimia include:

  • Pressure from one or both parents to be perfect, be good and look good
  • Parent(s) has eating disorder
  • Alcoholism or other addiction in family
  • Feeling isolated; no one to talk to about fears, insecurities
  • Situations which cause feelings of shame or embarrasment
  • Sexual abuse
  • Distorted self-image
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Traumatic events
  • Need for approval
  • Lack of healthy coping mechanisms
  • Social Pressure to be thin
  • Rejection from peers

Biological and Genetic Causes

Long described as a psychological disorder, more and more researchers are looking at biological factors which can predispose a person to bulimia.

A study by Columbia University found those with bulimia less able to focus and more impulsive when responding to tasks requiring concentration. These results may point toward a reduced ability to regulate food intake for those with the eating disorder.

Other biological factors which may contribute to bulimia include:

  • Hormonal dysfunction
  • Impaired metabolism
  • Increased levels of cortisol: a stress-related hormone
  • Family history of obesity
  • Family history of addiction and psychiatric disorders
  • Attention Deficit Disorder
  • Bipolar Disease

Electrolyte imbalance and nutritional deficiencies caused by binging and purging can increase the impact of these biological dysfunctions.

However bulimia evolves, it is a treatable illness. People recover everyday. Treatment options–from therapy, support groups, counseling to medication—will help make the transition to a life free of this destructive illness.


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