Binge eating is more common than people realise, sometimes even leading to further dysregulated eating patterns such as bulimia or anorexia. If you’re a binge eater, you’ll be thankful to know there are reasons why your body induces such actions. It’s not just inadequate ‘will power’; it’s also your body's physiological reactions based upon imbalances.
The binge cycle can be crippling – your whole life focuses around food, binging and then shamefulness. Take heart, however, because you’re not alone and there are ways to improve your mind and body connections to reduce or even eliminate this cycle.
The binge cycle
The binge eating cycle can go something like this:
- Diets excessively or starves oneself
- Craves food and then can’t stop eating until the stomach is at capacity
- Feels guilty and shameful of the binge episode (this could be followed by some form of purging)
- Diets or starves oneself to ‘make up’ for the episode
- Cycle starts again
Factors that encourage dysregulated eating patterns
Abnormal eating patterns are usually triggered by a host of factors. These include:
- Environmental stressors and traumatic events
- Miscarriages, sexual assault, domestic violence
- Sudden or unexpected life changes (job loss, accidents, moving homes, separation, illness of a loved one)
- Problems at school or work
- Nutrient depletions and abnormal blood sugar regulation
- Psychosocial factors (relationships between friends, family and partners)
- Increased stress and depleted support networks
- Problems with sexuality
- Critical comments about weight, body shape or eating habits
- Early life extensive antibiotic treatments
- Excessive alcohol intake or substance abuse
- Never learning how to properly navigate hunger/satiety signals
(Degortes, 2014) (Gupta, 2020)
4 physiological factors that can cause binge eating
1: The stress link
Research suggests that chronic stress may be able to trigger an appetite-stimulating response (Rosenberg, 2013). Stress has been shown to have a definite role in the onset of binge-eating episodes due to overstimulation of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis – a central hormonal control system of the brain.
You must try to self-regulate your stress levels. Otherwise, your body's alternative is to externally regulate, leaving you vulnerable to binging or addictive tendencies. Having to consistently deal with negative thoughts leads to HPA dysregulation, so developing a positive mindset must be a top priority.
2: Gut microbiome and dopamine
Did you know that the gut microbiome can influence your dopamine levels? Dopamine is both a neurotransmitter and a hormone having a myriad of influences on your gut-brain chemistry. If you’re overly stressed, chances are your feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin are low. Low dopamine is highly associated with binge-eating episodes and imbalanced gut bacteria (Rosenberg, 2013).
The gut-brain axis has defined that our gut microbiome plays an integral role in metabolism. This includes hunger and satiety cues (Mason, 2017). The gut microbiota can balance both stress-induced hyperactivity of the HPA axis and healthy, feel-good neurotransmitter communications (Gupta, 2020). A balanced microbiome can also significantly improve food intolerances, intestinal integrity, inflammation, anxiety and depression (Mason, 2017). Working on your microbiome can be a major step in improving neuronal communications and satiety cues (Gupta, 2020).
3: Imbalanced leptin-satiety signalling
What’s leptin you may ask? Leptin is your satiety hormone signal and it’s there to tell the body, “Hey, we’re healthy, we’re safe and can decrease food intake now.” It’s also associated with regulating bodyweight, menstrual cycles and energy expenditure (Monteleone, 2000).
Leptin can range differently across anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorders. Blood sugar regulation is a key leptin trigger – if you’ve eaten sugars and increased insulin, your leptin should also naturally increase to help you feel full. In some cases, however, this doesn’t occur.
Leptin can also decrease cortisol and has been shown to regulate our sleep-wake cycles (Monteleone, 2000). Continuous binge-eating can deplete the brain signal which tells us, “‘I’m at capacity, stop eating now.” Binging also negatively influences your intestinal lining, immunity, stomach acidity and gut bacteria. Ideally, you should be eating at 80% of your stomach capacity, not 120%. It will take time to restore this communication mechanism.
4: The oestrogen link
Have you ever wondered why you can’t control your binging episodes, especially around your period? Well, research suggests a link between 17b-estradiol, cortisol, glucose and leptin (Monteleone, 2000). There’s crosstalk between oestrogen, luteinising hormone (LH) and leptin. This means there’s a link between your hormones, reproductive axis and hunger/satiety signals.
Interestingly, women with amenorrhea are further prone to abnormal leptin signalling than those with regular menstruation, further connecting the dots between leptin and a healthy reproductive function (Horvath, 2008). Oestrogen also reduces appetite – without adequate oestrogen levels, leptin cannot communicate properly with the brain. If your oestrogens are dropping too low prior to your menses, leptin is altered and binging can increase (Horvath, 2008).
Support your hormonal communications and HPA axis with Happy Hormones.
Significant links between psychological state and binge eating
The connection between your psychological condition and binge eating cannot be dismissed. Now is the time for some introspection and asking yourself some hard questions with honest answers:
- What makes me happy? Do I do it regularly?
- What am I doing for healthy stress relief? Is food my comfort?
- Am I exercising enough to keep my mind and body healthy?
- Am I eating whole foods to nourish my biochemistry?
- Does my significant other make me feel happy? Are there ways to better our relationship?
- Are my friendships bringing me joy or do they put me down?
- Am I overdoing it? Can I ask my family or friends for help?
- Do I need to see a financial counsellor?
- Do I enjoy my job?
- Do I like where I live?
- Do I talk bad to myself constantly?
- What are my binge eating triggers?
- Is it time I see a counsellor to discuss underlying issues?
It’s time to feel good
One way to help tackle binge eating is by creating a happy environment. Make it that you’re so happy in your everyday life that you won’t need to binge, starve yourself, hide away or talk to yourself detrimentally. This will take time but it’s important to begin to love yourself.
Here are a few tips to embrace positivity and begin to feel good about yourself and your life:
- Work with a counsellor. You can speak to your GP and discuss Medicare-rebated free counselling sessions.
- Join binge eating support groups. You can do this in person or online.
- Talk to people who can give you support. They could be family members, friends or even your partner.
- Exercise! You must get at least 30 minutes of exercise every single day to increase natural dopamine and serotonin. Try incidental exercise!
- Get rid of any kind of binge-worthy foods in the house. Learn to say no to temptation.
- Eat slowly – this is a big one. Time yourself if you need to. Enjoy a meal no quicker than 30 minutes. Chew your food thoroughly and pause before your next bite. Mindful eating can do wonders in supporting your satiety communications.
- Find your creative outlet. If your life is all work and no play, it’s time to find something that brings you joy! Dance, paint, rock climb, swim, write poetry, start a journal, make music – whatever it is that gets you out of your head – do it regularly.
- Positive self-talk. This is crucial. As soon as you start pulling yourself apart, STOP! Leave the mirror, leave that thought, DO NOT allow it into your mind. Remind yourself that you’re worthy, beautiful and deserving of health and happiness.
- Consider enhanced cognitive behavior therapy (CBT-E). If you’re currently consumed by an eating disorder, CBT-Es are known to enhance remission. (Monica Leslie, 2018)
Remember that it’s okay to eat three meals a day and a couple of small healthy snacks. If you’re not sure how to eat normally anymore, it might be time to see a nutritionist and regain the essentials. It takes time to conquer binge eating, but you can win the battle with the right support. You don’t need to do it on your own and it doesn’t have to remain a secret anymore.
Eating Disorder Support
Degortes, D. S. (2014). Stressful Life Events and Binge Eating Disorder. European Eating Disorders Review, 378–382.
Gupta, A. O. (2020). Brain–gut–microbiome interactions in obesity and food addiction. Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology.
Horvath, Q. G. (2008). Cross-talk between estrogen and leptin signaling in the hypothalamus. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab, E817–E826.
Mason, B. L. (2017). Feeding Systems and the Gut Microbiome: Gut-Brain Interactions With Relevance to Psychiatric Conditions. . Psychosomatics, 574–580.
Monica Leslie, J. L. (2018). The influence of oxytocin on eating behaviours and stress in women with bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology.
Monteleone, P. D. (2000). Circulating leptin in patients with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge-eating disorder: relationship to body weight, eating patterns, psychopathology and endocrine changes. Psychiatry Research, 121 - 129 .
Rosenberg, N. B. (2013). Cortisol response and desire to binge following psychological stress: Comparison between obese subjects with and without binge eating disorder. . Psychiatry Research, 156 - 161.