"Hills" star Stephanie Pratt surprised many of her fans this week when she decided to open up about her struggle with bulimia, which she kept well hidden from the cameras while on the show. Pratt said she made the revelation increase awareness about the eating disorder, and she's probably already made many fans ask, "What exactly is bulimia?"
By definition, a person suffering from bulimia nervosa, a serious psychiatric illness, has episodes of binge eating followed by self-induced vomiting and/or the use of laxatives or other means of eliminating the food. The disease can be triggered by a number of different factors, according to Danielle Shelov, a psychologist at New York's Columbus Park Collaborative, where she helps treat eating disorders.
"It can be a variety of things, usually something has gone on somewhere along the line that allows them to feel like something is missing, or something is lacking in their life, or maybe they feel out of control, or maybe they feel they have nothing that's their own," Shelov explained. "So a lot of times the function of an eating disorder will be to have something of their own and to give them something to control."
Shelov shared five behavioral warning signs to look out for if you suspect a friend might have an eating disorder like bulimia:
1) Depression, irritability and isolation from others.
2) Preoccupation with appearance to the point of being intensely fixated on their body.
3) Social isolation and withdrawal from all activities and social circles.
4) Preoccupation with exercise.
5) Preoccupation with food.
Dr. Drew Pinsky told MTV News that bulimia can also be caused by external forces. "There is no doubt that the pressures our society puts on young women contribute to the risk for an eating disorder," he said, adding that there has been an increase in young men who have an eating disorder as well. "We put a high value on looking a certain way, being thin, being young, being perfect and naturally somebody who has esteem issues, doesn't feel well, doesn't feel okay is trying to fix it by fixing the outside."
Dr. Drew likened being bulimic to being a drug addict or a cutter. "Now, there's two forces at work with bulimia: One, I need to look a certain way so I feel OK about myself, but secondly, ultimately, eating disorders become a bid to regulate emotions almost the same way addiction is," Dr. Drew said. "It helps them feel better in an unregulated emotional state, so literally, the bulimia, the purging, the eating is, believe it or not, a bid to feel better."
Dr. Drew stressed that if you suspect that a friend has bulimia, you should help them find treatment immediately, adding that one in five people suffering from an eating disorder dies of complications from the disease.
According to Shelov, it's important to find the right kind of help for someone suffering from the disease. "They need to find someone who has experience dealing with these issues, because they are complex and they are unique," she said. "It's important you find people who are skilled in this.
"Second of all, you find a place that can cater to all different levels of illness," Shelov added. "There are different places for different kinds of things. Many times there has to be a nutrition component treated, a therapeutic component treated as well as a medication component. Ideally, all those are treated simultaneously."