Why Do We Binge? How to Turn It Off!

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Binge eating is a feeding pattern that involves consuming large amounts of food in a very short frame of time. It can sometimes evolve into bulimia, a condition where you eat large amounts of food and then purge. A study in press in _Biological Psychiatry_sheds additional light on information from prior studies that examined what makes someone binge eat, and ways to limit this feeding practice.

U.S. and U.K. data on binge eatingA report in the U.K. identified 725,000 with an eating disorder. Of those, 11 percent were male. According to the National Eating Disorders website, the most recent data in the** U.S. suggests that among the general population, binge eating is the most common eating disorder,** affecting three and half percent of women, two percent of men, and more than one and a half percent of teens.

Serotonin release and dopamine neuron responseI recently discussed the complicated and delicate balance of hormones in our bodies in Know Your Hunger Hormones Part 1 and Know Your Hunger Hormones Part 2. I described** dopamine** as “the feel good” hormone because it acts to help intensify pleasurable feelings from eating. It was also implicated in cravings.** Serotonin** provides a feeling of calm after you eat a sugary food (carbohydrates), and low levels of this hormone can instigate carbohydrate cravings. So it’s not surprising that these hormones and receptors feature prominently in the Biological Psychiatry study, which aimed to further explore why some individuals binge eat.

In this study, researchers suggest that impaired serotonin (specifically 5-HT serotonin)** signaling** may be a strong driver of binge eating in humans. In fact, binge eaters seem to have increased brain 5-HT uptake, resulting in lower levels of 5-HT content. As I just mentioned, lower levels of serotonin incites more cravings and an increase in the drive to eat voraciously.

Study creates “artificially -impaired” serotonin mechanism

I’ve also mentioned in past shareposts that mice mimic humans when it comes to obesity and feeding patterns. In this study, mice were gathered and then assigned to be fed either an intermittent high-fat diet, a continuous chow (their normal food type) and high fat diet, or a continuous chow-only diet. Different stimulators and medications were then used to see how they affected feeding patterns.

The first “intermittent” group had the most diversity in their diet. In week one, they received regular chow plus high fat food for 48 hours, and then only chow for the rest of the week. In week two, they received the combo diet for only 24 hours and then regular chow the rest of the week. Week two’s diet was repeated for several weeks. The other two groups were on a steady diet daily of high-fat food plus chow or regular chow. The researchers then used pharmacologic, electro-physiologic, and chemo-genetic drug variables in order to manipulate the 5-HT/dopamine circuit during feedings.

During the weeks of the study, every Monday was a “binge assessment day,” when researchers measured food intake during a two and a half hour period. The researchers compiled data on binge-type behaviors in the intermittent group compared to certain drugs, gene mutation like manipulations, or a combination of the two. For example, it’s known that an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) like Floxetine (Prozac), one of the drugs they tested, allows levels of serotonin to linger for longer periods, which is why it’s an effective treatment for depression. The study also clarified why the drug seems to instigate artificial hunger and weight gain. That serotonin-lingering effect that is beneficial in depression, makes you crave food as well.

Mouse diet type did not significantly change the study findings. The researchers felt they were able to re-create the types of situations that mirrored an impaired serotonin mechanism, impacting dopamine neurons and driving binge eating in humans.

Study confirms dopamine-binge connectionThe researchers suggest that this new study helps to clarify the mechanism behind binge eating, identifying 5-HT and dopamine level** variations** as strong instigators of the binging mechanism.** Impairments in the 5-HT/dopamine circuit appear to drive incessant eating in humans**. I used two different links to the same study – one earlier on and one here

Binge eating treatment

According to the American Psychological Association, the current treatment for binge eating involves treating the obesity-associated health condition and the psychological component of the disease. Cognitive behavioral therapy, psychotherapy (interpersonal therapy), dialectical behavior therapy, nutrition counseling, group/family counseling and pharmacotherapy can all be part of the treatment plan. Vyvanse (lisdexamfetamine dimesylate) is a medication currently approved by the FDA to treat moderate to severe binge eating disorder (BED). The drug has some potential serious side effects and cannot be taken if you are using certain other medications.

Binge eating is strongly linked to feelings of shame, poor self-image, and other negative emotions. This new study suggests the need for developing additional drugs (with fewer side effects) that specifically target the 5-HT/Dopamine (DA) interaction as effective anti-binge therapies. It is important for you to identify your personal triggers. There are also ways that you can self-manage BED.

See More Helpful Articles:

6 Health Conditions Related to Binge Eating Disorder

Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Binge Eating Disorder (BED)


Amy Hendel, also known as The HealthGal, is a Physician Assistant, nutritionist and fitness expert. As a health media personality, she's been reporting and blogging on lifestyle issues and health news for over 20 years. Author of The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, her website offers daily health reports, links to her blogs, and a library of lifestyle video segments