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Conditions A-Z - Binge Eating Disorder

What is binge eating disorder?

Binge eating disorder is an illness that resembles bulimia nervosa and is characterized by episodes of uncontrolled eating or bingeing. It differs from bulimia because its sufferers do not purge their bodies of the excess food via vomiting, laxative abuse, or diuretic abuse.

Who is affected by binge eating disorder?

Individuals with binge eating disorder often:

  • eat large quantities of food.
  • do not stop eating until they are uncomfortably full.
  • have a history of weight fluctuations.
  • have more difficulty losing weight and keeping it off than people with other serious weight problems.

Binge eating disorder is found in about 2 to 5 percent of the general population, and is more often seen in women than men. Research indicates that binge eating disorder occurs in about 30 percent of people participating in medically supervised weight control programs.

What are complications of binge eating disorder?

Medical complications that may result from binge eating disorder include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • obesity - overweight by 20 percent of normal weight
  • increased risk for the following:
    • high cholesterol
    • high blood pressure
    • diabetes
    • gallbladder disease
    • heart disease
    • some types of cancer
  • increased risk for psychiatric illnesses - particularly depression

People with binge eating disorder (and bulimia) typically consume huge amounts of food at one time - often junk food - to reduce stress and relieve anxiety.

  • With binge eating, however, comes guilt and depression.
  • Purging brings relief that is only temporary.
  • Individuals with bulimia are usually impulsive and more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as abuse of alcohol and drugs.

Biochemistry and eating disorders:

To understand eating disorders, researchers have studied the neuroendocrine system, which is made up of a combination of the central nervous and hormonal systems.

The neuroendocrine system regulates multiple functions of the mind and body. It has been found that many of the following regulatory mechanisms may be, to some degree, disturbed in persons with eating disorders:

  • sexual function
  • physical growth and development
  • appetite and digestion
  • sleep
  • heart function
  • kidney function
  • emotions
  • thinking
  • memory

Eating disorders and depression:

Many people with eating disorders also appear to suffer from depression, and is believed that there may be a link between these two disorders. For example:

  • In the central nervous system, chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters control hormone production. The neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine, which function abnormally in people who have depression, have been discovered to also have decreased levels in both acutely-ill anorexia and bulimia patients, and long-term recovered anorexia patients.
  • Research has shown that some patients with anorexia may respond well to antidepressant medication that affects serotonin function in the body.
  • People with anorexia, or certain forms of depression, seem to have higher than normal levels of cortisol, a brain hormone released in response to stress. It has been shown that the excess levels of cortisol in both persons with anorexia and in persons with depression are caused by a problem that occurs in, or near, the hypothalamus of the brain.
  • Biochemical similarities have been discovered between people with eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and patients with OCD frequently have abnormal eating behaviors.
  • The hormone vasopressin is another brain chemical found to be abnormal in people with eating disorders and OCD. Levels of this hormone are elevated in patients with OCD, anorexia, and bulimia.

Genetic/environmental factors related to eating disorders:

Because eating disorders tend to run in families, and female relatives are the most often affected, genetic factors are believed to play a role in the disorders.

But, other influences, both behavioral and environmental, may also play a role. Consider these facts from the National Institute of Mental Health:

  • According to one recent study, mothers who are overly concerned about their daughters' weight and physical attractiveness may put their daughters at increased risk of developing an eating disorder. In addition, girls with eating disorders often have a father and/or brother(s) who are overly critical of their weight.
  • Although most victims of anorexia and bulimia are adolescent and young adult women, these illnesses can also strike men and older women.
  • Anorexia and bulimia are found most often in Caucasians, but these illnesses also affect African-Americans and other races.
  • People pursuing professions or activities that emphasize thinness - such as modeling, dancing, gymnastics, wrestling, and long-distance running - are more susceptible to these disorders.
  • In contrast to other eating disorders, one-third to one-fourth of all patients with binge eating disorder are men. Preliminary studies also show that the condition occurs equally among African-Americans and Caucasians.

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