What Is The Difference Between Natural And Intentional Vomiting?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 18, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If you are experiencing a crisis related to an eating disorder or would like further resources, reach out to the ANAD Eating Disorders Helpline at 1-888-375-7767 from Monday through Friday, 9 am to 9 pm CT.

The human body's natural response to harmful or threatening substances that have been ingested is to vomit, also called throwing up. However, some people may wonder whether there is a difference between throwing up on purpose or experiencing it unwillingly. Knowing the difference and weighing the pros and cons of throwing up can be beneficial. The effects of intentional vomiting can be damaging and a sign that you are living with a serious eating disorder

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Common causes of natural vomiting

The medical definition of vomiting involves the process of regurgitating stomach contents through the esophagus (food pipe) and out the mouth or nose. The most common causes of vomiting include illness, changes in hormone levels, or exposure to harmful substances. In some cases, vomiting is preceded by nausea or the urge to vomit. Common causes of vomiting include:

  • Gastroenteritis (stomach viruses)
  • Overdoses 
  • Excessive use of Cannabis sativa
  • Food allergies
  • Food poisoning
  • Medicines or medical treatments, such as chemotherapy 
  • Motion sickness or being seasick
  • Severe pain
  • Morning sickness during pregnancy
  • Migraine headaches

Natural vomiting does not often last more than 48 hours. In instances when it does, seek out support from a physician. However, note that during pregnancy, hormonal imbalances may cause nausea and vomiting for weeks. If the expectant gestational parent can eat or drink, there may not be a cause for alarm. Morning sickness may resolve on its own by the end of the first trimester of pregnancy.

Medical dangers of self-induced vomiting

Those who induce vomiting may benefit from understanding that it is unhealthy. However, this pattern is complex and may require medical intervention, depending on the cause. The dangers of knowing how to make yourself throw up are real and include the following potential outcomes.

Dehydration and electrolyte imbalances 

Forcing yourself to throw up after eating means you lose water and other bodily fluids. It also leads to low levels of the electrolyte potassium, which can lead to abnormal heart rhythms and fatigue. This imbalance can lead to cardiac arrest and sudden death in extreme cases. 

Acid reflux or gastric ulcers 

When a person vomits, the acid in the stomach is expelled with the other stomach contents. With prolonged periods of vomiting, especially self-induced vomiting, the acid may begin to eat away at the esophagus and stomach lining. This condition can cause symptoms of reflux and may result in ulcers.

Difficulty controlling future vomiting 

The human body adapts to changes. When your body is subjected to a pattern of behavior or action for prolonged periods, it may begin to recognize the behavior as "normal." Self-induced vomiting, if it occurs often, may eventually lead to your body recognizing the presence of food as a signal for vomiting. In this case, you may stop being able to control your gag reflex. 

Erosion of the teeth 

Stomach acid eats away at the enamel of teeth and other oral (mouth) tissues. Long-term effects can mean cavities, gum disease, or loss of teeth altogether.

If you are struggling with a pattern of binge eating and vomiting afterward, know you are not alone, and support is available. This behavior is not necessarily permanent; these patterns can be changed with professional mental health and medical support. 

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Ingesting harmful substances and vomiting

If you or someone else has swallowed what you believe to be a harmful substance, call the Poison Control Center immediately at 1-800-222-1222 for support. 

If you or a loved one swallows a potentially harmful or poisonous substance, immediately contact a doctor or another expert. While the first instinct may be to try to vomit and rid your body of the harmful substance, it may create more damage instead of relieving the problem. Do not deal with this issue without talking to your doctor first. 

Inducing vomiting can also lead to further harm if the poison is mixed with the acid in your stomach. Further, you could experience aspiration, which means the substance could enter your lungs. This symptom can be dangerous.

When you call poison control, you may be asked to provide the following information to personnel who are offering medical guidance related to the ingestion of a harmful substance:

  • The person's age
  • Height and weight
  • When they ingested the poison
  • What poison you believe they ingested
  • How much you think was consumed
  • Any symptoms the person is experiencing
  • How long the symptoms have been occurring for 

They may instruct you on care steps at home or help you cope with symptoms while waiting for emergency services. 

Nausea remedies

If you are feeling nauseated, you might want to force yourself to throw up. However, rather than attempting to induce vomiting, you can try a few methods to reduce the feelings of nausea, including the following: 

  • Breathe Deeply: Rest quietly and relax while taking long deep breaths. Hold your breath for five to 10 seconds, then exhale. Repeat this process until the nausea subsides.
  • Eat a Small Snack: Try eating a few bites of a bland snack, such as dry toast or crackers, to soothe an upset stomach.
  • Cool Down: In some cases, lowering your body temperature may ease nausea. Try turning on a fan or placing a moist cloth on your forehead.
  • Try An OTC Remedy: An over-the-counter medication for nausea may reduce the symptoms. However, talk to your doctor before trying any medical remedy. 

Vomiting and eating disorders

Bulimia nervosa, commonly called bulimia, is a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder. Individuals who have bulimia are known to "binge and purge." These individuals may eat a significant amount of food and purposefully induce vomiting to get rid of it after eating. While there are other methods of purging associated with bulimia, self-induced vomiting is a common sign. 

People with bulimia may seem preoccupied with their weight and body shape and judge themselves severely for self-perceived flaws. Bulimia is related to issues with poor self-image and is often difficult to overcome. However, this eating disorder may be managed or treated with professional intervention from a healthcare provider and psychotherapist. 

How to find support for an eating disorder

Several resources are available if you are experiencing symptoms of an eating disorder. First, check in with your primary care provider. They may perform a physical assessment, including lab work for any hormonal or electrolyte imbalances, and can evaluate any medications you are taking. 

Seeing a mental health professional is another way to discuss your symptoms. They may ask you about your thoughts and feelings and teach you evidence-based coping mechanisms related to thoughts of negative self-image. If talking to someone in person feels overwhelming, you can contact the following organizations: 

  • National Eating Disorders Association: NEDA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people with eating disorders find support.
  • Recovery Record: Recovery Record is an online treatment community with an app that helps you track and monitor your meals, milestones, and messages with your care team.
  • Mental Health America: If you aren't sure whether you have symptoms of an eating disorder, consider taking an online screening. When you feel ready to talk to your doctor or a therapist, bring your results along to guide the discussion.
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Alternative support options 

While the above resources may help, professional one-on-one therapy may be most effective. You can reach out to an in-person or online therapist to find emotional support and understanding as you cope with symptoms. 

If you desire more obscurity when seeking treatment, online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp may be most effective. With an online platform, you can use a nickname upon signing up and choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions with your therapist. In addition, you may be able to choose an appointment time slot outside of standard business hours, allowing you to receive convenient guidance that gives you some control over your treatment. 

A study published in Eating Disorders Review found that online treatment for bulimia could be as effective as face-to-face therapy. One hundred and sixteen participants participated in the study, with 50% going through face-to-face therapy and 50% receiving online treatment. Both groups felt they benefited from the therapy, and participants and therapists cited that the therapeutic goals determined from the outset were worked on with significant progress throughout the treatment. Although many participants had bulimia nervosa, other participants had unspecified eating disorders. Thus, online therapy may effectively treat symptoms for those experiencing other eating disorders.

Takeaway

While vomiting can be a natural response to several internal and external stressors, there are times when it can be a sign of more serious issues. Self-induced vomiting is not recommended and can have negative effects. 

If you are experiencing symptoms of an eating disorder that makes you feel the need to induce vomiting, seek professional help. You might experience thoughts that you are unable to control these patterns, but with significant tools, self-compassion, and professional guidance, you can discover strategies to help. Reach out to a licensed therapist to get started.

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