What is Diabulimia?

In our weight-obsessed society where airbrushing models into virtual stick figures is considered normal and acceptable, adolescent girls and young women are under enormous pressure to reach or maintain an "ideal" body weight. But for those who have type 1 diabetes, the struggle can be monumental, since weight gain is common due to the dietary demands and insulin therapy that are necessary for controlling blood sugar.

The result is that an alarming number of girls and women suffer from diabulimia, the unofficial name for the co-occurrence of diabetes and an eating disorder.

How Does Diabulimia Develop?

A recent article in the U.S. News & World Report chronicles the experience of Asha Brown, who suffers from type 1 diabetes. In her teens, Brown tried to control her weight by skimping on calories, skipping insulin doses, and exercising compulsively in order to keep her calorie consumption below 1,600 per day. As a result, she experienced exhaustion, sleep deprivation, dehydration and a host of health problems that still plague her today.

This type of behavior isn't uncommon among girls and women with diabetes. Eating disorders are almost twice as prevalent among adolescents with diabetes as they are among their non-diabetic peers. Eating disorders in those with diabetes typically involve insulin omission or reduction, and these behaviors in adolescent girls and young women are known to lead to an earlier onset of complications from diabetes.

The Health Risks Associated With Diabulimia

Uncontrolled blood sugar associated with type 1 diabetes can have catastrophic health consequences. The American College of Emergency Physicians cites a study that found that 86 percent of girls between the ages of 12 and 18 who have diabetes and an eating disorder developed diabetic retinopathy, compared to just 24 percent of girls with diabetes but no eating disorder.

Other health problems associated with diabulimia include:

  • severe dehydration
  • exhaustion
  • muscle loss
  • neuropathy
  • stroke
  • coma
  • bacterial, yeast and staph infections

Those with diabulimia are also at an elevated risk of diabetic ketoacidosis, a life-threatening condition marked by high levels of ketones in the blood.

Considering that up to 20 percent of teenage girls and up to 40 percent of young women with diabetes are estimated to engage in diabulimic behaviors, the problem is a serious and widespread one. The American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists calls for greater awareness among physicians concerning this growing issue.

Help is Available

Asha Brown is now 30 and living with myofascial pain syndrome, a debilitating and chronic disorder that causes severe muscle pain. She considers herself lucky that she survived diabulimia, and to spread the word about this little-known condition, she formed We Are Diabetes, an organization that supports people with diabulimia and raises awareness of the condition and the challenges faced by young women with type 1 diabetes.

We Are Diabetes and other reputable organizations stress the importance of treating diabulimia through a high-quality, professional program. Treatment requires both medical intervention and intensive therapy to address various issues underlying the eating disorder, including a skewed body image and low self-esteem.

Through treatment, those who suffer from diabulimia can learn safer and more effective ways to control their weight. If you or someone you love suffers from diabulimia, professional treatment offers the help you need to regain good physical and mental health and a higher quality of life.

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