Brain Reward Response Linked to Binge Eating and ADHD

For some people, ADHD symptoms may play a role in their ability to plan and eat meals that leave them feeling full but not uncomfortable and can contribute to binge eating patterns.

Researchers and clinicians are examining the reasons why. They are looking for effective treatments to help people better cope with disrupted eating patterns, along with eating disorders.

Symptoms of binge eating

Binge eating disorder is characterized by eating large amounts of food in short periods of time, often when a person is not hungry, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. People who binge eat feel as if they don’t have control over how much they eat and have feelings of guilt or self-loathing after a binge eating episode.

Binge eating is the most common eating disorder in the United States. People with ADHD are at an increased risk for eating disorders, including bulimia, anorexia nervosa, and binge eating. However, research has been focused on binge eating specifically, due to the large number of people with both ADHD and a binge eating disorder. Duke University estimates that about 30 percent of adults with binge eating disorder also have a history of ADHD. Binge eating and related obesity can underlie health problems like heart disease and diabetes, prompting researchers to study what treatments might be most effective.

The US Food and Drug Administration has approved Vyvanse as a treatment option for both ADHD and binge eating. Vyvanse targets the brain’s reward center by increasing the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, the chemicals of the brain responsible for feelings of pleasure. Along with finding more treatment options, greater education on the connection between ADHD and binge eating is needed to help prevent health issues in people who have ADHD and binge eating disorder.

ADHD can contribute to eating disorders

Some people with ADHD also have binge eating disorder, thought to be related to a greater response in the brain’s reward system, according to a recent study. Study participants with either high or low levels of ADHD symptoms and a history of binge eating were shown pictures of food and non-food items. Researchers noted increased brain activity in the participants with high ADHD symptoms when they looked at pictures of food. The researchers concluded this heightened brain response may be why having ADHD includes an increased risk of also having a binge eating disorder.

The study also tested participants’ impulse control responses and found there were no differences in the results of those with low or high levels of ADHD symptoms. This led the researchers to conclude that impulsivity is not the main cause of binge eating in individuals with ADHD, as previously thought.

In a similar study, Allan Kaplan, MD, of the University of Toronto found that adults with binge eating disorder “are more sensitive to food-related rewards than most people” and found there is “ a genetic basis—certain genes make individuals more susceptible to reward and thus more likely to engage in binges.”

For the people with ADHD who participated in the first study, food or food images triggered the reward center of the brain at a higher level than in people in the same study who do not have ADHD. This reaction may be why many people who have ADHD who binge eat feel they cannot control their eating.

Ways to address overeating

If you have ADHD and find yourself binge eating, it is important to be evaluated by a doctor who specializes in ADHD and eating disorders.

“Many individuals with ADHD are on a ‘see food’ diet. If they see it, they eat it,” says Roberto Olivardia, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of ADHD and eating disorders.

There are things you can do to practice healthy eating. Dr. Olivardia recommends becoming more aware of what and how much you eat and setting aside time for meal planning. Portioning out your food, such as putting chips in a bowl instead of eating out of the bag, can help you be aware of how much you eat. Reading the nutritional content on food packages can help with deciding on how much to enjoy at one time. Dr. Olivardia also suggests practicing mindfulness while eating and observing how full you feel.

Although some people may have a tougher time managing healthy eating, practicing these strategies, along with seeing a doctor who specializes in treating ADHD and eating disorders, can help you get a handle on binge eating.

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