Emotional Eating

Overcoming bulimia, binge eating, and body blues

Is Bulimia Like a Drug Addiction?

Considering bulimia as a form of “food addiction”

When the craving for a particular food hits someone suffering from bulimia it can seem impossible to overcome. Resisting the urge to binge, like resisting an urge to use drugs, can feel intensely horrible despite knowing that such resistance would ultimately feel better down the road. New research published this month analyzes the similarities between bulimia and drug addiction.

The research, conducted at Tufts Medical School and published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmocology, highlights many similarities in the behavioral experience of bulimia and drug addiction. For example, both food and drugs are experienced as cravings that often become associated with certain places or situations (and the brain may become wired to associate cravings with certain emotions). People experience positive shift in moods when eating and using which provides reinforcement to continue. They also describe feeling a loss of control in the moments before or during binging/purging and using.

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The authors explain how tolerance usually associated with drug addiction can also be seen in bulimia. As compared to when they first developed bulimia, people describe needing to eat larger quantities of food later on to get the same emotional/physical effect. The researchers speculate that there may also be a similar neurological pattern of withdrawal in bulimia and drug addiction. In fact, many people with bulimia report signs of drug withdrawal when they try to abstain from binge eating including increased anxiety, disturbed sleep, and strong cravings.

Given all these behavioral similarities, it seems likely that there are biological similarities between bulimia and drug addiction. Indeed, a new study conducted at Columbia University that will be published next month suggests that people with bulimia have similar dopamine abnormalities in their brain as people suffering from cocaine and alcholol addiction. A few other studies have looked at how the brain reacts to cravings - similar parts of the brain were activated in people with bulimia and drug addiction as they craved food and drugs, respectively.  

It’s no surprise that many people with bulimia have also suffered from drug addiction. Considering bulimia as a form of “food addiction” may help others better understand how paralyzing the illness can feel.

This article was originally posted on Binge Eating and Bulimia: The latest psychological research

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Sumati Gupta, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Columbia University's Barnard College and privately sees patients at Tribeca Psychology in New York City.

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