Understanding the connection of dopamine and binge eating

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What is dopamine?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter the brain produces. The nervous system uses dopamine to contribute to how people feel pleasure. Dopamine affects a person's motivation to eat and their food choices. It can also contribute to a person's drive and feeling of the loss of control while binge eating. (1) 

Dopamine affects many aspects of a person's behavior, such as learning, motivation, concentration, and mood. Physical functions are also affected by dopamine, such as the heart rate, kidney function, and movement. (2)

Dopamine and binge eating

The brain has a reward system that causes the body and mind to feel pleasure when they do something they enjoy, like listening to music, dancing, watching a funny movie, playing a music instrument or a sport, and eating. Some foods, like sugars, salts, 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. (3)

It's common for a person with a binge eating disorder to have depression or anxiety. Both conditions affect how a person feels and make it challenging to engage with others and complete daily tasks. People who feel intense sadness or fear may seek out ways to improve their mood, such as eating. 

When someone eats, even someone without an eating disorder, their brain's reward system is triggered. For someone who has an eating disorder, this small window of pleasure from releasing dopamine while they eat gives them a break from their feelings of guilt or sadness. The longer they eat, the more they eat, the better they feel. 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.

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.

Binge eating disorder is a complicated condition with many biological, psychological, and social risk factors. But treatment options are available. 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 knows every person's binge eating experience may differ and customizes treatment to individual needs. Contact the Within Health admissions team today to get started on the healing process.

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.

Resources

  1. Bello, N. T., & Hajnal, A. (2010). Dopamine and binge eating behaviors. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 97(1), 25–33. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pbb.2010.04.016
  2. Watson, S. (2021, July 20) Dopamine: The pathway to pleasure. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/dopamine-the-pathway-to-pleasure 
  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. https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuv002
  4. ScienceDaily. (2011, February 28). Binge eaters' dopamine levels spike at sight, smell of food. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/02/110228104308.htm

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