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What is Diabulimia?

What is Diabulimia?

What Is Diabulimia?

Eating disorders are behavioral health conditions characterized by severe and persistent disturbances in eating behaviors that are often linked to an underlying mental illness. There are various types of eating disorders, with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa being the most common. These conditions are among the deadliest of all mental health disorders and often lead to different health concerns ranging from osteoporosis to diabetes. Among these disorders is diabulimia. “What is diabulimia,” you ask? Keep reading to learn more about what it is, plus its causes and symptoms.

Diabulimia Definition

Otherwise referred to as diabetic bulimia, diabulimia is a type of eating disorder that can develop in people with type 1 diabetes as a result of insulin restriction. Diabulimia is an informal term that was created by combining “bulimia” and “diabetes.”

This condition can develop in someone with type 1 diabetes when they stop taking insulin to lose weight. Type 1 diabetes is a type of diabetes that occurs when a person’s pancreas doesn’t make insulin or makes very little insulin.

Insulin is a hormone that helps cells absorb blood sugar, so it can be used for energy. Without insulin, cells can’t absorb blood sugar, which causes it to build up in the bloodstream, spiking the person’s blood sugar levels.

High blood sugar is highly damaging to the body and can cause a variety of symptoms like increased thirst, fatigue, dry mouth, stomach pain, shortness of breath, and more. Type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed in children, teens, and young adults, but it can develop at any age.

Type 1 diabetes is believed to be caused by an autoimmune reaction (when the body attacks itself) that destroys beta cells in the pancreas, which make insulin. This process can go on for months or years before the person experiences any symptoms of diabetes.

Causes of Diabulimia

So, what is diabulimia, and what causes it? It’s normal for people who take insulin to control their diabetes to gain some weight.

When you take insulin, glucose (sugar) is able to enter your cells, dropping your blood sugar levels (which is the goal.) But if you take in more calories than you need to maintain a certain weight, depending on your level of physical activity, your cells will receive more glucose than it needs, which can accumulate into fat.

As you can imagine, weight gain can be frustrating for someone who’s trying to manage type 1 diabetes. In addition to increased absorption of sugar, other causes of diabulimia include:

  • Having to carefully read food labels for nutritional facts
  • Placing focus on your weight when you go to the doctor
  • Having to eat to treat hypoglycemia (when your blood sugar drops too low)
  • Being constantly aware of how many carbohydrates or calories are in your food
  • Feeling shame over how you manage your diabetes
  • Difficulty maintaining a weight that’s appropriate for your age and height

Eating a clean diet and exercising is crucial to maintaining a healthy blood sugar level for people with diabetes and their insulin levels, and although necessary, it can make this slightly more difficult.

Oftentimes, people with type 1 diabetes will turn to harmful compensatory habits, like reducing their insulin intake, obsessively counting calories, or even vomiting after eating food to avoid weight gain. In the end, this can lead to a distorted body image and obsessive desire to lose weight, two of the main signs of bulimia nervosa.

People with bulimia nervosa often engage in episodes where they’ll eat a significantly large amount of food within 2 hours, otherwise known as binge eating episodes. This condition is also often linked to underlying struggles with mental health that may occur from distorted body image and feelings about weight, as well as obsessive behaviors like counting calories and carbohydrates.

What Are the Symptoms of Diabulimia?

As with other eating disorders, diabulimia warning signs can be both physical and psychological. Because this condition isn’t officially accepted as a medical condition, it can be difficult to spot the signs of diabulimia in a loved one.

Additionally, this is an ongoing and common problem among people with type 1 diabetes, so recognizing the symptoms is crucial to getting a loved one eating disorder support. In the early stages, it may be easier to recognize the psychological symptoms of diabulimia.

The person may express concerns about their weight more frequently and even mention that they’re using insulin to manage it. They may hint at or openly discuss their fears of gaining weight or of certain foods that may lead to weight gain.

Psychological Symptoms

The mental symptoms of diabulimia resemble those of other eating disorders. Eating disorders can develop from a combination of stress,  emotional avoidance, low self-esteem, body dysmorphia, and more.

Common psychological diabulimia symptoms include:

  • Praising the appearance of underweight people
  • Having frequent conversations about food, weight, or calories
  • Frequently expressing concerns about their weight or appearance
  • Talking about insulin’s effects on their weight
  • Exhibiting signs of depression or anxiety
  • Isolating themselves from others and avoiding social interactions
  • Being secretive about their insulin use
  • Avoiding medical appointments
  • Refusing to eat in front of other people

Physical Symptoms

Physical symptoms of diabulimia can be quite severe and may include things like:

  • Stopped or irregular menstrual cycle
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Nausea and or vomiting
  • Blurred vision
  • Dry skin, hair, or nails
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Bladder infections
  • Frequent urination

High blood glucose results on the A1C test and symptoms of chronic dehydration are also common symptoms of diabulimia.

Health Consequences of Diabulimia

The effects of diabulimia include health complications like:

  • Loss of muscle tissue
  • Chronic illnesses like liver, kidney, and heart disease
  • Pain, tingling, or numbness in the extremities
  • Temporary or permanent eye and vision problems
  • Reduced immune function, increasing the risk of developing illness and disease
  • Frequent bacterial or yeast infections

A common reason why skipping insulin causes weight loss is that, without insulin, the body can’t use sugar for energy and instead flushes any excess sugar through the urine. For energy, the body instead produces ketones, which is the point of the popular “keto” diet.

While the keto diet isn’t necessarily harmful, it can be dangerous for someone with type 1 diabetes. In someone with diabetes, insulin omission or reduction can lead to diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), which is when the blood becomes too acidic, leading to dehydration, confusion, fruity-smelling breath, nausea, and breathing problems. In the long run, reducing insulin to lose weight can lead to liver and kidney disease and even death.

Finding Diabulimia Treatment

Overcoming an eating disorder can be difficult, dangerous, and nearly impossible without professional help. These disorders are usually life-threatening, which is why they require medically supervised treatment.

If you or a loved one has an eating disorder, our center for eating disorders can help. Banyan Treatment Centers offers eating disorder treatment in Philadelphia for all kinds of conditions, including bulimia and bulimia-related symptoms.

With the help of our dedicated team of professionals, patients will have the comfortable environment and comprehensive care they need to recover from their conditions. To learn more about our eating disorder programs at Banyan Philadelphia, call us today at 888-280-4763.

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Alyssa, Director of Digital Marketing
Alyssa, Director of Digital Marketing
Alyssa is the National Director of Digital Marketing and is responsible for a multitude of integrated campaigns and events in the behavioral health and addictions field. All articles have been written by Alyssa and medically reviewed by our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Darrin Mangiacarne.