Text Link

Learn more about the results we get at Within

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Suspendisse varius enim in eros elementum tristique. Duis cursus, mi quis viverra ornare, eros dolor interdum nulla, ut commodo diam libero vitae erat. Aenean faucibus nibh et justo cursus id rutrum lorem imperdiet. Nunc ut sem vitae risus tristique posuere.

Learn more about the results we get at Within

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Suspendisse varius enim in eros elementum tristique. Duis cursus, mi quis viverra ornare, eros dolor interdum nulla, ut commodo diam libero vitae erat. Aenean faucibus nibh et justo cursus id rutrum lorem imperdiet. Nunc ut sem vitae risus tristique posuere.

Understanding the connection of dopamine and binge eating

Binge eating behaviors are a major aspect of several eating disorders, including binge eating disorder (BED) and bulimia nervosa (BN). Yet, while the behavior works to help drive these mental health conditions, research is increasingly finding that binge eating itself may be driven by dopamine, an important chemical produced by the brain.

Understanding how dopamine is connected to binge eating can help untangle why the behavior manifests in people with BED and BN—and, hopefully, help uncover ways to stop these episodes.

Last updated on 
September 20, 2023
September 20, 2023
Dopamine and binge eating
In this article

What is binge eating?

Binge eating is a term used to describe the consumption of large amounts of food in relatively short periods of time. It's a symptom of BED, BN, and some other types of eating disorders.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the official record of all medically-recognized mental health conditions, binge eating episodes are characterized by:5

  • Eating, within a certain period of time, an amount of food that's distinctly larger than most people would eat in the same time period
  • A sense of a lack of control over how much or what is consumed

Further, to meet the DSM criteria, a binge eating episode must incorporate at least three of the following conditions:5

  • Eating much more rapidly than normal
  • Eating until uncomfortably full
  • Eating alone due to embarrassment, guilt, or shame over eating behavior
  • Eating a lot when not feeling physically hungry
  • Feelings of disgust, shame, or depression after overeating

What is dopamine?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (chemical) produced by the brain. Among other functions, it helps contribute to:6

  • Memory
  • Movement
  • Pleasure
  • Motivation/reward
  • Sleep
  • Arousal
  • Attention

Dopamine can influence many aspects of a person's behavior, due to its effect on concentration, mood and more. Physical functions are also affected by dopamine, such as the heart rate and kidney function.2

In fact, the number of mental and physical functions dopamine is involved in makes regulation of the neurotransmitter an important aspect of someone's health, with low dopamine levels being tied to several physical and psychiatric disorders.7

Dopamine effects

Dopamine's role in eating and pleasure

Dopamine is an important part of the brain's reward pathway, which causes the body and mind to feel good when doing something pleasurable. While this can be triggered by a number of activities, from listening to music, dancing, watching a funny movie, or playing a sport, the pathway evolved, in part, as a way to reward the body for doing things that were needed to survive.8

That same brain reward response—and dopamine receptors—can be activated by eating. Evolutionarily, pleasure was attached to eating as a survival mechanism. When food was difficult to come by, the brain wanted to ensure humans would do what it took to find enough food to nourish the body.8

But dopamine affects more than a person's motivation to eat. It can also impact their food choices.

Some highly-palatable foods, such as sugar, salt, and fat, give a person an abrupt dopamine boost. This dopamine dump can boost a person's mood while eating and power cravings of certain foods. The process is similar to what helps drive drug addiction, with similar brain regions being lit up by the substances.3

Dopamine and binge eating

When it comes to binge eating, dopamine also plays a role, with the neurotransmitter potentially contributing to the sense of a loss of control that helps characterize binge eating.1

Seeing or smelling a desirable food can cause a dopamine spike and increase anyone’s motivation to eat. For someone with binge eating disorder, this response is even stronger, making cravings more intense.4

This premature dopamine release can also be the reason why many individuals with binge eating disorder feel a lack of control over their eating. When they're around certain foods, their brain tells them to eat, even if they may not be hungry.

Help for binge eating disorder is available.
Remote options >

Dopamine, binge eating, and mood disorders

Dopamine may also influence binge eating episodes experienced as part of BED or BN in a less direct way.

It's common for people with binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa to have co-occurring depression or anxiety disorders.9,10 These often affect how a person feels and can make it challenging to engage with others and complete daily tasks. As such, people who feel intense sadness or fear may seek out ways to improve their mood, whether consciously or subconsciously.

Eating triggers the brain's reward system, no matter who is eating. For someone who struggles with depression or anxiety, this dopamine-driven pleasure may help alleviate feelings of sadness or stress.

It's possible in these situations for someone to get carried away, eating more or longer to feel better. However, once they've finished eating, they often feel guilty and ashamed and restrict their food intake, putting them back into a depressive state. Suddenly, the individual is chasing the pleasure response from dopamine, putting them into a cycle of binge eating and restricting.

Finding help for binge eating

Binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa are complicated conditions with many biological, psychological, and social risk factors. But treatment options are available.

Remote treatment that works

Within Health provides clinically superior and continuous support for people who have eating disorders. Using evidence-based treatments, the team of experts at Within Health customizes treatment to meet each individual's specific needs. Contact the Within Health admissions team today to get started on the healing process.

Get help

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Bello, N. T., & Hajnal, A. (2010). Dopamine and binge eating behaviors. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 97(1), 25–33. 
  2. Watson, S. (2021, July 20). Dopamine: The pathway to pleasure. Harvard Health Publishing. Accessed September 2023.
  3. Alonso-Alonso, M., Woods, S. C., Pelchat, M., Grigson, P. S., Stice, E., Farooqi, S., Khoo, C. S., Mattes, R. D., & Beauchamp, G. K. (2015). Food reward system: Current perspectives and future research needs. Nutrition Reviews, 73(5), 296–307.
  4. ScienceDaily. (2011, February 28). Binge eaters' dopamine levels spike at sight, smell of food. ScienceDaily. Accessed September 2023.
  5. Berkman, N.D., Brownley, K.A. Peat, C.M. (2015). DSM-IV and DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for binge-eating disorder. National Library of Medicine. Accessed September 2023. 
  6. Dopamine. (n.d.). Cleveland Clinic. Accessed September 2023. 
  7. Dopamine Deficiency. (n.d.). Cleveland Clinic. Accessed September 2023. 
  8. Loonen, A., Ivanova, S. (2015). Circuits regulating pleasure and happiness: the evolution of reward-seeking and misery-fleeing behavioral mechanisms in vertebrates. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 9. 
  9. Pinto, B. (2022). Binge Eating Disorder and Mood Disorders Comorbidity: Clinical Implications. Faculdade de Medicina. Accessed September 2023. 
  10. Levinson, C. A., Zerwas, S., Calebs, B., Forbush, K., Kordy, H., Watson, H., Hofmeier, S., Levine, M., Crosby, R. D., Peat, C., Runfola, C. D., Zimmer, B., Moesner, M., Marcus, M. D., & Bulik, C. M. (2017). The core symptoms of bulimia nervosa, anxiety, and depression: A network analysis. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 126(3), 340–354.
  11. Grinspoon, P. (2020, February 26). Dopamine fasting: Misunderstanding science spawns a maladaptive fad. Harvard Medical School. Accessed September 2023.

FAQs

Is there a dopamine detox for binge eating?

While a so-called "dopamine fasting" method has been introduced in recent years, the concept isn't actually a dopamine detox. Rather, "dopamine fasting" is modeled off of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), to help patients gain more autonomy over triggering thoughts, behaviors, and other stimuli.11

"Detox" is short for detoxification, a method to purge the body of toxic substances. While dopamine can play a role in influencing unhelpful behavior, the neurotransmitter itself isn't considered toxic, and it cannot be removed from the body.

Healing the underlying issues that drive binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, and other eating disorders may be a lengthy process, but it's the best way to ensure long-lasting recovery.

Further reading

Why do I binge eat?

Binge eating is the act of consuming a large amount of food over a certain period of time. By most medical...

Treating binge eating disorder at home

Binge eating disorder (BED) is one of the most recently defined eating disorders, but it is already...

Do I have binge eating disorder?

Binge eating disorder (BED) is a serious mental health condition that involves frequent episodes of someone...

Binge eating self-help

Self-help is the process of improving oneself or overcoming one’s problems without help from others...

Why am I eating so much?

Anyone can have a complicated relationship with food, particularly in American culture...

What causes binge eating disorder?

Since it was first officially recognized in 2013, binge eating disorder (BED) has...

Understanding the connection of dopamine and binge eating

Binge eating behaviors are a major aspect of several eating disorders, including binge eating disorder...

Signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder

The prevalence of binge eating disorder (BED) is on the rise in the US, with an...

BED of low frequency and/or limited duration

Binge eating disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder in the United...

What is binge eating disorder (BED)?

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder in the United States...

Binge eating disorder related to food insecurity

There are many known risk factors for eating disorders, such as a history...

Binge eating disorder and the trauma of weight stigma

Someone who is struggling with binge eating disorder experiences recurring...